A proposal to fund California's controversial high-speed-rail system rolled through the state Assembly late Thursday afternoon and now heads to the state Senate for possible approval Friday.
The bill, which was the subject of intense criticism and negotiations in the weeks leading up to this week's vote, was unveiled late Tuesday and includes the necessary funding to begin construction on the opening segment of the line in Central Valley as well as improve both ends of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles system. The vote was 51-27 and fell largely along party lines, with Democrats supporting the project and Republicans opposing it.
Among the proponents were Peninsula lawmakers Rich Gordon, Jerry Hill and Paul Fong, all Democrats. Though Gordon and Hill had both criticized the project in the past, they ultimately sided with the majority and voted in favor of the budget-trailer bill.
The bill includes $5.8 billion for the "initial operating segment" in the Central Valley and another $1.1 billion for the "bookend" segments, which include the Peninsula.
Gordon lauded the changes that the California High-Speed Rail Authority made to the project in recent months, including the adoption in its April plan of the "blended" approach that Gordon championed along with state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto. The approach calls for high-speed rail to share two tracks with Caltrain and would involve electrifying the Caltrain tracks -- a project that the cash-strapped commuter-rail agency has been pursuing for more than a decade.
"The bookends and investments in the Los Angeles and Northern California regions, I think, are very appropriate," Gordon said at the Assembly hearing. "There's also connectivity funds that will help the existing train system.
"I rise in support for this bill and encourage you to vote 'Aye.'"
Other legislators echoed similar sentiments and praised the project for bringing much-needed jobs to California, particularly to the Central Valley region that has been hit particularly hard by unemployment. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Tracy, a leading proponent of high-speed rail, alluded to the "tens of thousands of workers who are sitting at home collecting unemployment."
"I say we put California on a fast-track to recovery and pass this measure," Galgiani said.
Galgiani also said that without high-speed rail, California would have to build 12 new highway lanes to meet the state's traffic demand.
Assembly Republicans rejected this view and characterized the project as a badly botched endeavor that the state can ill afford. Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, argued that the 130-mile opening stretch of the line would replace farms, businesses and homes with tracks that wouldn't even be electrified. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, said the legislators "lied to the voters," who approved a $9.95 billion bond for high-speed rail in 2008. At that time, the project's estimated price tag was less than $40 billion. Today, it stands at about $68 billion.
"You lied, and the voters know it," Grove said. "I hope you'll give the voters an opportunity to re-approve this disastrous project when they were lied to in the beginning."
The Assembly's vote is a small victory for Gov. Jerry Brown, a major supporter of the high-speed rail project. The larger obstacle, however, is the Senate, where several Democratic members have expressed reservations about the project. Though the project is unlikely to get any Republican support in the Senate, supporters of high-speed rail have been working hard behind the scenes to secure all the Democratic votes, Palo Alto's high-speed-rail lobbyist John Garamendi, Jr., told the city's Rail Committee Thursday morning.
Palo Alto, which supported the concept of high-speed rail in 2008, has turned against the project in recent years because of an escalating price tag and uncertainty over ridership projections. The city adopted in December as its official stance a call for the project's termination.