California in all out push for rail money

WASHINGTON -- Californians are lobbying hard amid steep competition for billions of dollars in federal high-speed rail funding.

Employing every tool of persuasion from gift books and phone calls to hallway chats and high-level letters, including several to be sent as early as Friday to the White House, the state's lawmakers are making their case for $4.7 billion. But with 23 other states likewise seeking funds, and merit supposedly mattering more than politics, success could be elusive.

"We think because California is further along in this effort, we're well placed to receive federal funding," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, insisted Thursday.

California's application for high-speed rail assistance from an economic stimulus package includes nearly $1.3 billion for potential San Joaquin Valley routes running from Merced to Bakersfield.

California's bid also covers segments from San Francisco to San Jose and Los Angeles to Anaheim. When completed, the sections are supposed to support trains traveling more than 200 miles per hour.

Overall, the state's $4.7 billion request amounts to more than half of the $8 billion available nationwide. Congressional leaders slipped in the money for high-speed rail during final negotiations over a large economic stimulus package.

Forty-five high-speed rail corridor funding applications were filed from 24 states, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The applications seek a total of $50 billion -- five times the amount available. An additional 214 applications were received asking for $7 billion for rail corridor planning and smaller projects.

If California doesn't get all the money it's asking for, state officials must divvy up what's available.

"I'm very hopeful we'll get a large portion of what we're asking for," Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said Thursday. "We're ready for it."

As part of the lobbying effort, Boxer said she, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be sending President Barack Obama another letter as early as Friday. It will likely remind Obama that California is providing $9 billion from a bond measure, and it will be accompanied by letters from the Sierra Club and the Chamber of Commerce to show support spanning the political spectrum.

Trying for the personal touch, Costa sent Obama and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel copies of historian Stephen Ambrose's book about the building of the transcontinental railroad, "Nothing Like it in the World." And this week, California High-Speed Rail Authority leaders roamed Capitol Hill and huddled with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Since January, records also show, lobbyist Mark Kadesh -- formerly Feinstein's chief of staff -- has been paid $120,000 to advocate for California high-speed rail.

"We're doing a number of things," Costa said, when asked how California is promoting its high-speed rail bid.

Still, the longtime rail advocate acknowledged that California will "probably" not receive its entire request. Speaking at a U.S. High Speed Rail Association conference Thursday morning, Costa shared the stage with congressional colleagues who have their own plans.

"We want to make sure New York gets a piece of that stimulus money," said Rep. Michael McMahon, D-N.Y.

Officials say merit will guide their funding decisions.

Technical review panels are grading applications on seven criteria, such as transportation benefits, jobs and environmental quality.

Technical merit aside, some applications carry some political freight. Illinois -- the home state of both Obama and LaHood -- has applied for $4 billion to assist a high-speed rail connection between Chicago and St. Louis. Other Midwest applications have likewise been made for high-speed rail connections to Obama's former hometown.