High-speed rail receives Senate OK

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."


Like this comment
Posted by USA
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 6, 2012 at 11:12 pm

How many teaching jobs would a billion dollars generate?

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of another community
on Jul 7, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Sacramento wastes billions on a train to nowhere, then they expect us to send billions more to them via November tax increases? Not a chance.

Like this comment
Posted by James Thurber
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jul 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm

I've just returned from the East Coast, riding their excellent trains - which are high speed - 150 mph on the Acela Express from Boston to New York City. I spoke with several conductors about California's high speed rail project and they voiced some legitimate concerns: a) 260 mph is still very experimental. Most trains that run at this speed do so for extremely short distances - many of these trains operate on magnetic levitated rail systems; b) "What would California's High Speed Railroad's average speed be?" They felt it would be no greater than 125 mph in the best of circumstances; c) the distances in California do NOT lend themselves to high speed rail - its 400 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles; d) Are the public transportation systems in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco suitable? They doubted it (I do too). Public transportation is excellent in Boston, Washington, D.C. and especially New York City.

Given their concerns I think that California's decision to go ahead with High Speed Rail will prove one of the biggest failures in the history of the state.

Like this comment
Posted by Nick
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jul 8, 2012 at 11:14 pm

California Government has just proven that they don't need additional tax dollars -- vote NO on the tax increases coming up in November. Absolutely crazy!

Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jul 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Contrary to his election promises, Jerry Brown is clearly indebted to big labor. Taxing the living crap out of the general public to employ a relatvely small number of valley construction workers is not sound fiscal policy. Next on his agenda: Reopen Solyndra?

Like this comment
Posted by tommygee54
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jul 9, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Supposedly HSR will be completed by 2029. I will be 75 years old then. I will have to find a reason to use the system when I am 75. At least the intersection of Central Expy at Rengstorff will be different...

Like this comment
Posted by Ole
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Jul 9, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Thanks for the insight James.

I just returned from Spain, where there are several HSR systems draining the state. They are not all that fast or on time. They aren't cheap either. And then you get gouged by higher rental car rates than at the major international airports. And then there's that 25% unemployment.

Like this comment
Posted by Otto Maddox
a resident of Monta Loma
on Jul 9, 2012 at 7:42 pm

The other thing the Acela corridor has is population density. From Washing D.C. to Boston there are a ton of people packed along the train route. Same for the train routes in Europe.

In between San Jose and Los Angeles there just aren't enough people to make this economically viable.

If this were a private business venture it would be dead on arrival. But that state doesn't have about things like that.. they just raise our taxes.

Like this comment
Posted by Konrad M. Sosnow
a resident of another community
on Jul 9, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Just think, you're grandchildren will be able to visit the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento and see the platinum spike for the 300 mile Obama Railroad.

Like this comment
Posted by MV resident
a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 9, 2012 at 11:33 pm

Insanity. We can't afford it and nobody is going to use it.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Steve
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jul 10, 2012 at 11:55 am

@MV Resident,

You might be right: "Insanity. We can't afford it and nobody is going to use it." However, I'm sure I can find these exact words from the early sixties to refer to BART in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. Our Supervisors opted out of BART based on that logic, and half a century later we pay a premium to buy our way back in. If you are wrong about HSR, the same thing will have to happen all over again. Insanity is actually taking the same approach but expecting a different result.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of another community
on Jul 10, 2012 at 12:32 pm

When pro-transit commentators point out problems with the proposed California high speed rail system, you know it's flawed. How bad is it? Read this:
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Rodger
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jul 11, 2012 at 10:56 am

We have to somehow kill this wasteful project but not by voting against the tax increase in November which will only hurt our schools and other vital activities.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Voting against the November tax increases is the only way to send a message to Sacramento.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Steve
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jul 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Hopefully we will be able to explain to kids who get in trouble during two extra weeks of no school that their life changing problems are our way of "sending a message" to the Governor and Legislators about spending priorities. Only about 50 school districts around the state directly spend local revenue on school operations. The other 950 are largely funded by the state through complicated formulas. They are spared in the adopted budget, while everything else takes cuts of various sizes. If the initiative fails, more than 5 million students K-12 will get fewer classroom days, and many of their parents will pay a direct "tax" in the form of additional child care expenses. Over the last three or four years, schools have already been cut by approx 20%. Each year in a child's education is a one-off opportunity, so putting money back later does not help the student who is shortchanged today.

Like this comment
Posted by timo
a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 12, 2012 at 1:27 am

This high speed rail is the biggest waste of time and money this area has ever seen. its gonna start out like a ball of fire and burn out just as fast. in the first month it will already be over budget, and it will get worse from there. I wonder how many people are going to get fat cash out of this horrible joke.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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