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Challenges remain for California high-speed rail plan

Posted: July 9, 2012 5:30 p.m.
Updated: July 9, 2012 5:30 p.m.
 

 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers may have given their OK to what could be the nation's first high-speed rail line, but the project is still a long way from leaving the station.

The bullet train has prominent supporters such as President Barack Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown, but backers must still overcome a number of challenges, including environmental concerns, clashes with local leaders over land use, a $68 billion overall price tag with no funding guarantees and an increasingly disenchanted public.

Supporters applauded Friday when the state Legislature narrowly approved $4.5 billion in state funding for rail improvements and to begin construction of the initial segment of high-speed track in the agricultural Central Valley. The move enabled the state to tap $3.2 billion in federal bond money.

Critics, however, are redoubling their efforts to derail the project that could eventually link Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains traveling up to 220 mph.

Among those gearing up for a fight are the farmers whose land is in the path of the massive infrastructure project.

The Madera and Merced county farm bureaus, along with other parties, have filed a lawsuit to halt the project on grounds that the state has not done enough environmental vetting. The plaintiffs say the train would render 1,500 acres of fertile land unfarmable and disrupt 500 agricultural businesses.

"We are going to protect our property," said Frank Oliveira, a farmer who has been active in opposing the plan.

Brown, a Democrat, has made the project a touchstone of his administration.

"I believe we're going to go all of the way. Just taking the first step in and of itself will create value for our state," he told reporters Monday at an event with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at the Port of Oakland.

Brown initially tried to prevent courts from using the state's complex environmental law to stop construction but backed down under pressure as he sought to win lawmakers' approval. On Monday, he suggested the law might benefit from reforms to discourage people trying to keep projects from coming too close to their property.

Some observers say the state might avoid an injunction delaying the project because courts often give the state the benefit of the doubt in environmental complaints.

However, California has some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the country, and even if the lawsuits are thrown out, construction could be bogged down for years by the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.

LaHood on Monday praised Democratic lawmakers for approving the project, despite intense pressure from critics. He said it reinforces California's position as a leader in high-speed rail.

"The president's vision is to get America to have high-speed rail. There's no better place to do it than in California," he said at a separate event in San Francisco.

Funding is another potential line of attack against the state's largest-ever construction project.

California voters approved $10 billion in bonds for the project in 2008 and Friday's vote assured that the state will be able to collect $3.2 billion in federal money that could have been rescinded if lawmakers failed to act.

That leaves $55 billion still needed to finish the line, assuming it doesn't go over budget. The cost is lower than the California High-Speed Rail Authority's initial $98 billion estimate.

LaHood said officials initially didn't know where all the money would come from for the interstate highway system, but they forged ahead anyway.

"Fifty years later, we have the best road system in America built with federal, state and private dollars, and that is the direction for high-speed rail," he said.

Congressional Republicans have said they will block any further funding for the bullet train, and investors have not flocked to the project as hoped.

California voters also appear less willing to support additional funding. A Field Poll in December found the 2008 rail bond would fail if put to a vote today.

The administration's latest business plan relies on private investment and industrial fees from California's cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to fill much of the funding gap for the rail line.

"The money is there," Brown said. "We have the capability in California in a $2 trillion annual economy to finance this thing."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

 

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