Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, has two remarkable accomplishments since being named chairman of the U.S. House subcommittee that oversees the nation's railway system.
First is a pet project. He introduced the Pets on Trains Act of 2013, a.k.a. the Lily Denham Act, which would require Amtrak to allow passengers to travel with cats and dogs. "My dog, Lily, is part of our family and travels with us to and from California all the time," Denham said. "If I can take her on a plane, why can't I travel with her on Amtrak, too?"
Second is his effort to earn status as an honorary member of Congress from the East Coast. At a June 6 field hearing in New York City, Denham went out of his way to ingratiate himself with advocates of the Northeast Corridor rail system, making it clear that he believes the first $6 billion in federal and state funding for California's high-speed rail project should go to Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.
He presented a list for where the $6 billion should go: replace the Baltimore and Potomac tunnels, build a new Portal South Bridge, replace the Susquehanna River Bridge and the Gunpowder River Bridge.
"I believe the $6 billion that was given to California high-speed rail could be better spent on such upgrades as these projects where they are both clearly identified and necessary beyond dispute," he said.
Here's the kicker. Denham was not just talking about the $3.4 billion that the federal government awarded to California's high-speed rail project. He threw in $2.6 billion from California's voter-approved Proposition 1A bonds, appropriated by the Legislature last July for the first 130-mile stretch in the Valley. That's our state money.
"Simply put," Denham said, "this money would have been better spent here on the Northeast Corridor, which continues to set ridership and revenue records for Amtrak." He continued, "But when there was funding available, it was spent elsewhere." In his home state, in his own district.
Denham tried to bait the four East Coast panelists into agreeing with him. No takers.
Bob Yaro of the Regional Plan Association in New York said, "If you're looking for someone to do a hatchet job on California high-speed rail, I'm not sure I want to do that." He noted that both the Northeast and California expect to have 20 million more people in 30 years. He supports what he called "High-Speed Rail 2.0" for the Northeast Corridor and California, as well as Florida, Texas and the Midwest.
But that spirit of interstate reciprocity was missing from Denham. Not one penny for California.
In the Central Valley where unemployment averages more than 15 percent, more than 40 percent in some cities the project would bring jobs and better connections with the coastal economies. It would relieve traffic congestion on roads and at airports. The Siemens manufacturing plant in Sacramento, which builds light-rail trains, stands ready to expand to build 220-mph trains like the ones in Germany and Spain.
But Denham's having none of it. He laments that construction on the first 29 miles of track between Madera and Fresno will start soon.
Denham's constituents and residents across the state should demand more from their congressman. He should be representing the Central Valley, California and the transportation interests of the nation not pitting the Northeast region against all others.