| SAN FRANCISCO, July 5
SAN FRANCISCO, July 5 California lawmakers were
nearing a vote on Thursday on a make-or-break $8 billion
financing pl an to launch the state's planned high-speed rail
system, which has been mired in controversy over its management
and cost, now pegged at $68 billion.
Votes in favor of the plan would mean California could begin
selling bonds for its most ambitious public works project and
lock in federal funds for a line in the state's Central Valley,
while a "no" vote would stop the entire plan in its tracks.
Lobbied hard by unions who see the plan as a bonanza for new
jobs in a state with 10.8 percent unemployment, Democrats who
control the state Assembly are expected to approve the plan over
Republican opposition as early as Thursday afternoon.
But the plan for a rail system to connect California's
far-flung metropolitan areas faces uncertain prospects in the
state Senate, which was expected to vote on it on Friday.
"We're charging ahead on this," said Art Pulaski, the chief
officer of the 2.1-million-member California Labor Federation
and a political ally of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.
Brown sees a bullet-train network, which would take decades
to complete, as a massive jobs program and a way to advance
environmental goals with an alternative eventually to car and
Senate Republicans are against the plan, predicting it will
become a massive financial burden for California. Up to six
Senate Democrats also may be opposed. Without their votes, the
plan would fall short of the majority needed to clear the
Senator Leland Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco, said the
plan's supporters have their work cut out winning him over, a
sentiment other Democratic senators have shared with Reuters in
"Right now, my choice is not to support this particular
arrangement," Yee said.
Voters approved the sale of nearly $10 billion in general
obligation bonds in 2008 to build the system, but polls have
since found them souring on the idea, which assumed the U.S.
government would open the money spigot for the system and the
private sector would also help fund it.
Their buyer's remorse has intensified as California has
struggled in recent years with large deficits that forced deep
spending cuts to the state's most basic programs.
Over the same time, the authority in charge of planning for
the high-speed rail network has seen its plans for routes,
financing, cost estimates, ridership and travel times subjected
to intense scrutiny and stinging criticism.
California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, which
studies state finances, released a report in April that said the
California High-Speed Rail Authority had "not made a strong
enough case for going forward with the project at this time."
Brown has sought to salvage the authority by appointing Dan
Richard, a veteran board member of the San Francisco region's
Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system, to its board. He took charge
earlier this year and jumped into tackling concerns raised in
the Legislature by the authority's previous leadership.
But a key issue he has not been able to tackle is the Obama
administration's insistence that initial federal funds for
California's high-speed rail network be spent in the state's
Central Valley farming region.
Congressional Republicans have criticized that and so have
some Democrats in California. T he White House s ees California as
critical to keeping its plans for high-speed rail projects on
track after Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida
rejected federal funds for them.
"California is the signature high-speed rail project in the
nation," said Petra Todorovich, a rail policy expert at Regional
Plan Association in New York, a nonprofit urban planning group.
"It has the potential to have transformative impacts on the
state, on its geography, and how people get around."
Some Democrats in California's Senate say money should go to
urban coastal areas, where improved rail service could ease
traffic congestion and generate revenue to cover the costs of
building and operating speedier rail lines.
Those concerns have found their way into the funding plan
before the Legislature.
It proposes California sell $2.6 billion in bonds to unlock
$3.2 billion in funds from Washington to build a Central Valley
track. The plan would also spend more than $2 billion in a mix
of federal, state and local funds on rail projects in urban
areas to prepare to link them to a statewide system.
But it remained uncertain whether that would rally enough
Democrats in the Senate behind the plan, which does not account
for the tens of billions of dollars needed to fully extend the
rail system across the state.
"That is the elephant in the room," said Democratic Senator
Mark DeSaulnier, who is working on an alternate plan to present
to his caucus.