06 July, 2012

High-speed rail receives Senate OK -- by a single vote

Construction can begin on controversial $68 billion project after a dramatic legislative showdown

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 Friday afternoon.

The Senate's 21-16 vote on Senate Bill 1029 is 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. But despite his urgings, the project mustered just enough support to squeak through the Senate.

The Senate vote came one day after the state Assembly approved the bill 27-15. The bill allocates $2.7 billion from the 2008 bond to launch construction on the system's opening segment in the Central Valley. Much like in the Assembly, members of the Senate lined up largely 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 by calling the Senate's decision "a big vote." 

"In this era of term limits, how many chances do we have to vote for something this important and long-lasting?" Steinberg asked. "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?"

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."

Simitian 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 also 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, Simitian noted.

Simitian also alluded to the Field Poll conducted last week, which 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 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. 

Simitian cited the souring public opinion for the project in explaining his vote. By chasing the $3.3 billion in federal funding for high-speed rail, Simitian said, the legislature is risking a $40 billion hole in the budget that lawmakers would have to fill if 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?" Simitian said. "We may not think that's the way it ought to be but the hard practical reality is that that's the way the folks back home are thinking about these tradeoffs."

Simitian went on to reject the arguments from fellow Democrats Steinberg and Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, that legislators need to support high-speed rail as a way to generate jobs.

"This isn't a jobs versus no jobs debate," Simitian said. "This is a question of whether or not we generate good jobs with the right plan or the wrong plan."

Other Democrats who have been heavily involved in the rail project took similar stances. Sen. Allen Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, also said he still shares the vision for high-speed rail, but not the way this vision is being pursued. Lowenthal, a member of an Senate subcommittee that has been overseeing the rail project, called the rail authority's roadmap for building the road system a "high-risk strategy to put all our resources and funding in place that does not have independent utility right away." Like Simitian, he too voted against the bill. He acknowledged the rail authority's current plan is much better than its previous proposals but said he still cannot support it.

"I have nothing against Central Valley, but the concept was to link the Central Valley to the urban areas, to all parts of the state, not to create a stranded asset in Central Valley alone," Lowenthal said.

Sen. Mark Desaulnier, D-Concord, focused on the project's costs, including the interest on the bonds, in explaining his vote against the rail bill. Desaunier said the lawmakers still have "a lot of work to do" for this project. Desaulnier, like Simitian and Lowenthal, said he shares Obama's vision for high-speed rail but concluded that the proposal on the table "is a wrong way and the wrong place to begin to implement this vision."

"As we go forward, I know there is a risk to those of us who vote no," Desaulnier said. "If at the end of the day there are 21 votes and this goes ahead, I will go out that door and will start working as hard as I can to make sure that my fears that this is a wrong decision will not be realized. If, on the other hand, there aren't 21 votes, I'd argue that there is a better way to implement it."

Republicans were more 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?" Strickland asked.

But the majority of the Democrats followed Steinberg in supporting the project, stressing its job-generating potential and the expected influx it would bring to the state economy. Sen. Mark Leno called the bill on the table a "rare opportunity for California." It's rare, he said, to have "the stars align" as they have in this case, with the U.S. President, the state governors and top party leaders in Congress all supporting "moving forward with voter-approved bond money matched by federal dollars to create hundreds of thousands of jobs over the course of the project."

"This doesn't happen all that often," Leno said.

The budget-trailer bill, which has been a subject of intense speculation in Sacramento before lawmakers unveiled it late Tuesday, 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. 

It also omits a controversial proposal that would have fast-tracked the project through the state's environmental process -- a proposal that was widely panned by environmental groups and by Palo Alto officials, who continue to oppose the project.

Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt, who sits on the city's Rail Committee and who represents it on the Peninsula Cities Consortium, said he believes the lawmakers' decision to approve funding for high-speed rail "will most likely come back to haunt those who supported it and voted for it."

"It's probably not a decision based upon the most sound use of transportation and transit dollars nor the best use of taxpayer dollars," Burt said. "And there is a really great fear that it will discourage voter support for the governor's tax measure."

After the Senate vote, rail authority board Chair Dan Richard released a statement praising Brown and the leaders of the two legislative chambers for enabling the construction of high-speed rail to commence.

"Not only will California be the first state in the nation to build a high-speed rail system to connect our urban centers, we will also modernize and improve rail systems at the local and regional level," Richard said. "This plan will improve mobility for commuters and travelers alike, reduce emissions, and put thousands of people to work while enhancing our economic competitiveness.

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