California Assembly passes high-speed rail bond, but Senate Democrats remain dubious

A rendering of what a high-speed rail train would look like traversing California's desert.
A rendering of what a high-speed rail train would look like traversing California's desert.
California High Speed Rail Authority

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The Assembly has voted to pass $4.7 billion in bonds to break ground on the nation’s first high-speed rail system. But Democrats in the state Senate are still unsure about the decision to begin the rail project in the Central Valley.

The vote in the Assembly was 51-27, with all the Republicans opposed. They call the $69 billion high-speed project a boondoggle that will hurt the state's sluggish economy. Democrats — although not all of them — see it as a giant step forward in transportation technology.

The Obama administration has pledged to kick in another $3.3 billion to the high-speed rail project. But to get the federal money, California has to launch the project this year and start construction in the Central Valley.

That edict has been the project’s Achilles' heel, even among supporters.

With the Assembly now on board, the high-speed rail bond only needs a simple majority vote in the Senate to pass. The Democrats can do that on their own.

But nearly half of the Democrats in the Senate are skeptical about the project as its currently planned, including Santa Ana’s Lou Correa of Santa Ana and Chino’s Gloria Negrete McLeod.

Most of the skeptics are put off by the project's overall cost, estimated at nearly $100 billion late last year. A revised estimate now puts the cost at about $69 billion.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is squeezing reluctant Democrats for their votes. Toward that end, his office released a list of benefits that the high-speed rail bond bill will bring to Senate districts around the state.

The list highlights money in the bill for adding a “positive train control” guidance and safety system to the Metrolink commuter rail line in Southern California — one of the key benefits to Correa’s Orange County district.

Steinberg’s list also notes that the bill includes funding to connect Metrolink to the high-speed rail line — a benefit for Negrete McLeod’s Inland Empire district.

The Senate is expected to vote on Friday.

Source: California Department of Finance

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported the total value of bonds at $2.6 billion.