California passes $8 billion high-speed rail bill

Legislation will fund first 130-mile stretch of $68 billion project

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- By a bare majority, the California state Senate voted Friday to approve initial construction on the state’s $68 billion high-speed rail project, ending months of intense lobbying and uncertainty in the Legislature.

The approval was a major legislative victory for Gov. Jerry Brown, who lobbied lawmakers before the vote and celebrated with Democratic legislative leaders off the Senate floor immediately after.

The outcome was uncertain as recently as hours before the vote. With all 15 Republican senators opposing the measure and several Democratic lawmakers wavering, the California High-Speed Rail Authority and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg scrambled to muster at least 21 of 25 Democratic votes.

Twenty-one Democratic senators voted “yes.”

“This one of the hardest votes that I’ve ever worked on,” Steinberg said. “I think what we did today is going to be seen over many years, and many decades, as a turning point in California, a time when we decided to say ‘yes’ to hope, ‘yes’ to progress, ‘yes’ to the future.”

Steinberg, a Democrat, said the Democratic governor “talked to a couple members” ahead of the vote, while Democratic state Sen. Mark Leno reminded colleagues that the project not only had Brown’s attention, but also that of President Barack Obama and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Steinberg said he knew just before the floor vote that four Democratic senators would oppose the bill.

“There was no room to spare,” he said. “Had to get everybody else.”

The bill, approved the previous day by the state Assembly, authorizes $5.8 billion to start construction in the Central Valley, including $2.6 billion in rail bond funds and $3.2 billion from the federal government.

Lawmakers tied that money to nearly $2 billion in funding to improve regional rail systems and connect them to high-speed rail. That regional focus was considered necessary to lobby hesitant senators about the project’s potential significance to their districts.

“Members, this is a big vote,” Steinberg said as he opened floor debate on the bill. “In the era of term limits, how many chances do we have to vote for something this important and long-lasting?”

Democratic senators said the project would create thousands of jobs and make necessary improvements to the state’s transportation infrastructure. Republicans said it is too expensive and relies on uncertain future funding.

They criticized starting construction in the sparsely populated Central Valley.

Among Republicans in opposition was Sen. Tony Strickland, who criticized a willingness by the Legislature to reduce spending elsewhere while finding money for high-speed rail.

“I think this is a colossal fiscal train wreck for California,” he said.

Sen. Joe Simitian was one of the four Democrats to break ranks with his colleagues. Simitian said he supports the vision of high-speed rail, but not the current plan. He said there are “billions of reasons” to oppose it.

“We’re not being asked to vote on a vision today,” Simitian. “We’re being asked to vote on a plan.”

The other Democratic senators opposing the measure were Mark DeSaulnier, Alan Lowenthal and Fran Pavley.

Brown was governor three decades ago, when the state first contemplated high-speed rail, and has championed it again in his third term. His support came despite the fact that public opinion of the project has soured since voters approved it in 2008.

“In 2008, California voters decided to create jobs and modernize our state’s rail transportation system with a major investment in high-speed rail and key local projects in Northern and Southern California,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “The Legislature took bold action today that gets Californians back to work and puts California out in front once again.”

Republican state Sen. Doug LaMalfa called unsuccessfully for the Legislature to put the project to another public vote. Following the floor session, he walked over to Steinberg and said, “Congrats, sir.”

The vote could become problematic for Brown politically. Opponents of Brown’s November ballot initiative to raise taxes already are planning to use the project as an example of spending they say is wasteful. A recent Field Poll suggests the message may resonate, and some Democrats said they feared its effect.

The rail authority had planned to start construction in the Central Valley by fall in order to meet a 2017 deadline for spending federal stimulus money. It is now likely to start building late this year or in early 2013.

The project still faces significant challenges, including ongoing litigation and fervent opposition from farmers in the Central Valley.

Last month, Brown proposed legislation designed to insulate the project from environmental lawsuits. Environmentalists protested, and Brown put the measure off. He suggested that the proposal to limit circumstances in which a court could block construction of the project could move forward later.

Dan Richard, chairman of the rail authority board, said Thursday that legislative leaders made it clear they didn’t like the idea of relaxing environmental review.

“Look, this is 21st-century California, and we’re trying to build something big,” Richard said. “There’s obviously going to be litigation, there’ll be challenges. That’s the nature of the society that we live in, and we’ll deal with those as they come up.”