* Line would eventually connect San Francisco to Los Angeles
* Voter sentiment has soured on the project
By Mary Slosson
SACRAMENTO, Calif., July 6 California lawmakers
gave final approval to a high-speed rail plan on Friday in a
make-or-break vote for $8 billion in funding to start
construction on a 130-mile (210-km) section of track through the
state's central agricultural heartland.
The 21-16 vote in the state Senate was a substantial win for
Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who says a bullet train network
will boost job creation and provide an alternative to car and
plane travel in the country's most populous state.
Unions also lobbied hard for the network, the most ambitious
public works project to date in California. Republicans opposed
it, saying the $68 billion project would be a massive financial
burden that could jeopardize state spending on basic services
such as education and healthcare.
"The Legislature took bold action today that gets
Californians back to work and puts California out in front once
again," Brown said in a statement after the vote, which passed
with the minimum number of required 'yes' votes in the
Outside the Senate chamber, union representatives counted
votes closely and cheered when it became clear the bill would be
The state and federal financing approved by the legislature
includes the issuance of $2.6 billion in state bonds, which
would in turn unlock $3.2 billion in federal funds for
construction of track in the Central Valley that was expected to
begin at the end of 2012 or the start of 2013.
The bill, which passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly by
a 51-27 vote on Thursday, also approves spending over $2 billion
in federal, state and local funds on rail projects in urban
areas to prepare to link them to a statewide system.
The bullet train network, expected to take decades to
complete, would eventually connect Sacramento and San Francisco
to Los Angeles, with stops along the way.
"Literally, this project means tens of thousands of jobs,"
said Mark Kyle, director of government affairs for the Operating
Engineers Local Union No. 3, which was among the bill's
supporters. California has a 10.8 percent unemployment rate.
Kyle, whose group represents operators of large construction
equipment, added he was confident the High Speed Rail Authority
would attract private money to help build the entirety of its
Critics worry that funding for the project will eventually
run dry before the rail network can be completed, leaving
California with a "train to nowhere" in its agrarian midsection
for which it spent billions of public dollars.
The U.S. government has insisted that construction on the
bullet train line start in the Central Valley, where trains
could reach 220 mph (355-kph) over flat and more sparsely
populated terrain. The federal government has cited logistical
and cost reasons for its geographic preference.
That insistence irked both lawmakers from urban centers in
coastal Northern and Southern California, as well as farmers who
described the project as an "imminent threat" to some of the
most agriculturally productive land in the United States.
But with federal funds involved, the state has had to make
concessions in some aspects of the project, whose cost estimates
have ballooned to $68 billion from $45 billion previously.
The Legislative Analyst's Office, an independent budget
watchdog agency, said the source of funding for the project
beyond Friday's initial round was "highly uncertain."
State Senator Joe Simitian, a Democrat who voted against the
plan, told Reuters he was concerned about the system's costs
growing beyond current projections, that too few riders would
use the train, and that private-sector funds and more money from
the government might never materialize.
"There are billions of reasons why none of us should go
along with the program," Simitian said during the three-hour
debate over the bill. "This is the wrong plan in the wrong place
at the wrong time."
Voter sentiment on the high-speed rail line has soured since
a 2008 statewide vote in which Californians approved nearly $10
billion in state debt to help finance the plan. A June USC
Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found a majority of voters would
oppose the project if given another chance to vote on it.
The California high-speed rail project is the centerpiece of
President Barack Obama's priority to upgrade the nation's
transportation infrastructure, a goal he highlighted in this
year's State of the Union address.
The United States has fallen sharply in the World Economic
Forum's ranking of national infrastructure systems in recent
years. In its 2007-2008 report, U.S. infrastructure ranked sixth
in the world, but fell to 16th in the 2011-2012 report.
Other bullet train projects have fared poorly. Last year,
Florida Governor Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal
funds to build a high-speed line between Tampa and Orlando,
saying it would put the state on the hook for billions of
dollars it did not have.
Ohio and Wisconsin also rejected federal funds for
high-speed rail projects.