Legislature OKs funding for high-speed rail | July 11, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |



News - July 11, 2012

Legislature OKs funding for high-speed rail

by Gennady Sheyner

Construction of California's controversial high-speed-rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles is ready to launch, following a dramatic vote by the state Senate on July 6.

The Senate's 21-16 vote on Senate Bill 1029 is a major victory for the much-embattled project that voters approved in 2008 but that has attracted major opposition since then, particularly on the Peninsula. Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, was among a handful of Democrats who turned against the party majority and voted against the bill.

The Senate vote came a day after the state Assembly approved the bill 27-15. Peninsula assemblymen Rich Gordon and Jerry Hill voted for the bill, which allocates $2.7 billion from a 2008 state bond measure to launch construction on the system's opening segment in the Central Valley. Much as in the Assembly, members of the Senate lined up along party lines, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing the bill.

The dramatic outcome followed extensive debate between those who called the project a much-needed boost to the state's struggling economy and those who characterized high-speed rail as a badly botched project that the state can ill afford at a time of massive cutbacks to education and social services.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg opened the conversation: "How many chances do we have to vote for something that will inject a colossal stimulus into today's economy while looking at the future far beyond our days in this house?"

Sen. Simitian rejected this logic: "We're not being asked to vote on a vision today. We're being asked to vote on a particular plan."

He then laid out a list of reasons for his decision to oppose SB 1029. He cited the fact that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has a leadership structure riddled with vacancies and that the bulk of the funding in the bill would go toward a 130-mile track in the Central Valley. He noted that the bill fails to answer the critical question of how the rest of the $68 billion system would be funded and cited criticism from a variety of nonpartisan agencies, including the Legislative Analyst's Office and the Office of the State Auditor.

The bill approved by the Legislature allocates $2.7 billion for Central Valley construction and another $1.9 billion in bond funds for either end of the line. But even with a $3.3 billion commitment from the federal government, the project is still far short of the estimated $68 billion that would be needed to fund the system, Sen. Simitian noted.

He alluded to a recent Field Poll that showed that the controversial project could derail the tax measure that Gov. Jerry Brown plans to bring to the voters in November. Though 54 percent of the survey respondents said they support Gov. Brown's proposal, a third of those surveyed said they would be less likely to vote in favor of the measure if the Legislature funds high-speed rail.

By chasing the $3.3 billion in federal funds for high-speed rail, Sen. Simitian said, the Legislature is risking a $40 billion hole in the budget that lawmakers would have to fill if Gov. Brown's measure fails.

"How are we going to feel if we wake up on Wednesday after Election Day and look at the trigger cuts — the $40 billion that will have to be pulled painfully from the budget — from schools, colleges, universities, health, welfare and public safety?" he said.

Republicans were vehement in their opposition, with Tony Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks, calling it a "colossal fiscal train wreck for California." The state, he said, is spending money it doesn't have. "You simply cannot find the money to fund education, but you can find money for this fiscal train wreck?" he asked.

The budget-trailer bill, which has been a subject of intense speculation in Sacramento before lawmakers unveiled it July 3, makes several overtures to Peninsula communities, where opposition to high-speed rail has been most vehement in recent years. It commits to a "blended" system in which high-speed rail shares tracks with Caltrain and allocates $705 million for the long-awaited electrification of the Caltrain system.

In the Assembly, the vote wasn't close. It passed July 5 on a 51-27 vote. Though they had both criticized the project in the past, Peninsula lawmakers Rich Gordon and Jerry Hill, both Democrats, sided with the majority.

Mr. Gordon lauded the changes that the California High-Speed Rail Authority made to the project in recent months, including the adoption in its April plan of the "blended" approach.


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