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UPDATE: California bullet train heading for crucial vote

Posted: July 6, 2012 1:08 p.m.
Updated: July 6, 2012 1:08 p.m.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, right, congratulates Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, after the Senate approved a bill, that Huff opposed, authorizing about $4.5 billion funding for a high-speed rail system

 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers approved billions of dollars Friday in construction financing for the first segment of what would be the nation's first dedicated high-speed rail line, eventually connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The state Senate voted 21-16 on a party-line vote after intense lobbying by Gov. Jerry Brown, Democratic leaders and labor groups.

The bill authorizes the state to begin selling $2.6 billion in voter-approved bonds to build an initial 130-miles stretch in the Central Valley. That would allow the state to collect about $3.2 billion in federal funding that could have been rescinded if lawmakers failed to act Friday.

Critics call the bullet train a boondoggle, but supporters hailed the vote as the start of a much-needed infrastructure project. The bill also includes about $1.9 billion in funds for local rail projects.

The bill, which passed the state Assembly, now heads to the governor. The final cost of the completed project from Los Angeles to San Francisco would be $68 billion.

"This is a big vote," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said before lawmakers took the action. "In the era of term limits, how many chances do we have to vote for something this important and long-lasting?"

Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is managing the project, said California would have lost billions of dollars in federal aid if the Senate fails to pass the bill before adjourning Friday for a monthlong recess.

Richard said California entered a contract that called for the federal government to provide money for building the Central Valley segment if the state also put up its share.

The bill allows the state to begin selling bonds to finance the first 130 miles of track from Madera to Bakersfield.

California was able to secure more federal aid than expected after Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin turned down money.

Before the vote, at least half a dozen Democratic lawmakers remained opposed, skeptical or uncommitted. Some were concerned about how the vote would impact their political futures, while others were wary about financing and management of the massive project.

One dissenter, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said public support has waned for the project, and there are too many questions about financing to complete it. It's not a choice between jobs or no jobs, but whether the state implements the right rail plan, he said.

"Is there additional commitment of federal funds? There is not. Is there additional commitment of private funding? There is not. Is there a dedicated funding source that we can look to in the coming years? There is not," Simitian said.

In recent days, Democratic leaders included more funding to improve existing rail systems in an effort to entice support for the bullet train.

The bill now allocates a total of $1.9 billion in bonds for regional rail improvements in Northern and Southern California. The upgrades include electrifying Caltrain, a San Jose-San Francisco commuter line, and improving Metrolink commuter lines in Southern California.

Brown, a Democrat, pushed for the massive infrastructure project to accommodate expected population growth in the nation's most populous state, which now has 37 million people. He joined legislative leaders and labor groups in saying the project is sorely needed to create jobs in a region with higher-than-average unemployment.

Critics say the project is too expensive and unnecessary.

"I believe this is a colossal fiscal train wreck for California," said Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks.

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