With residents preparing for holiday celebrations Tuesday night, lawmakers in Sacramento released in the closing hours of July 3 a much-anticipated bill for funding the largest transportation project in California's history.
The bill, which the Legislature plans to hold a public hearing on this afternoon and could vote on as early as Friday, July 6, is now the subject of intense back-door negotiations in Sacramento, with Gov. Jerry Brown's administration scrambling to get the votes he needs to get funding for the $68 billion project.
The project has become intensely unpopular in Palo Alto, with the City Council voting in December to adopt as the city's official stance a call for the project's termination. John Garamendi, the city's high-speed-rail lobbyist in Sacramento, said Thursday morning that Brown did not appear to have the votes he needed in the Legislature on Tuesday to get the bill passed. By Thursday, it still seemed like he may not get the votes he needs, Garamendi said.
The behind-the-scenes dialogues in Sacramento have become particularly tense given a newly released Field Poll showing that the project could jeopardize Brown's proposal to bring a tax initiative to the voters in November. The poll showed 54 percent of the voters supporting Brown's initiative. But it notes that the tax initiative would be "adversely affected" if the legislature proceeds with funding the state's controversial high-speed-rail project. One in three voters, the poll found, said they'd be less likely to vote "Yes" on Brown's plan if high-speed rail is funded.
"The unpopularity of the multi-billion dollar project appears to be negatively affecting chances of voters endorsing the Governor's tax increase proposal should the legislature authorize funds for the project," the Field Poll states.
Though Palo Alto officials, like their counterparts elsewhere in the state, are still poring through the budget-trailer bill, on Thursday they cried foul over the process that led to the budget bill's release. Councilman Larry Klein, who chairs the city's Rail Committee, said such a process for pushing through major legislation would never fly at the local level.
"This is a ridiculous, undemocratic process that we're going through," Klein said. "It's interesting to note that cities cannot do this. We'd be prohibited by the Brown Act from releasing something at midnight on July 3, and having a hearing on July 5 and voting on it on July 6."
The committee voted to submit a letter to legislators reasserting the city's opposition to the project and criticizing the process for getting the bill to legislators.
The proposed bill would authorize $3.9 billion for rail construction out of the $9 billion bond voters authorized for high-speed rail in 2008. Of these funds, $2.6 billion would be appropriated for the "Initial Operating Segment" of the line in Central Valley, between Merced and the San Fernando Valley.
It also includes $124 million for property acquisition, mostly in the center and southern portions of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line. It also, however, includes $5.1 million for property acquisition between San Francisco and San Jose.
In an overture to Peninsula critics, the bill specifies that the project would be "consistent with the blended strategy" that the rail authority identified in its April business plan. The strategy, which calls for high-speed rail and Caltrain to share two tracks between San Jose and San Francisco, is widely seen as a more palatable alternative to the four-track vision the rail authority had initially proposed.
The project's critics have been particularly concerned about the California High-Speed Rail Authority's ridership projections, which many have maintained are far too optimistic. The Palo Alto-based group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) and the Institute for Transportation Studies at U.C. Berkeley have both questioned the methodology the rail authority had used to come up with its projections.
The proposed bill, Senate Bill 1029, requires the authority to submit a new business plan by January 2014 that includes a proposed approach for improving demand projections, cost models and "benefit-cost analysis as applied to future project decisions."
The rail authority will also have to prepare and submit by June 30, 2013 a report analyzing the impact of the rail project on greenhouse-gas emissions.
The bill also specifies that the bond funds would only become available if the project also receives the $3.2 billion it expects in federal funding and $1.1 billion in contributions from local sources, including Caltrain, as part of the blended approach.
The bill does not include any language that would fast-track the project through California's environmental-review process -- a point of particular concern for environmental groups.
A Joint Committee of legislators is expected to discuss the bill at 1 p.m. this afternoon and possibly vote on it Friday.