California state Senate says full steam ahead for high-speed rail

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
A rendering of what a high-speed rail train would look like traversing California's desert.
Dan Richard, chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, paces outside the Governor's office as he talks on his cell phone at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, July 6, 2012.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
A rendering of what a high-speed rail train would look like traversing California's desert.
Computer-generated image of a potential California high-speed train
California High-Speed Rail Authority

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The California state Senate voted Friday to approve $4.7 billion in state bonds for California high-speed rail, launching the first leg of the nation’s first bullet train.

The state Assembly approved the high-speed rail funds Thursday on a party line vote, but getting the 40-member Senate to agree looked to be more difficult.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg says California is now on the right track. "What is difficult and sometimes popular and controversial in the short run often becomes the greatest source of pride and progress later."

In debate Friday, Steinberg pushed high-speed rail's benefits to regional rail, particularly projects in the areas where the bill's opponents are from.

“In the era of term limits, how many chances do we have to vote for something this important and long-lasting?" Steinberg said.

Republicans countered, with Moorpark Sen. Tony Strickland saying, "I think this is a colossal fiscal train wreck for California."

Critics of the high-speed rail plan say it will saddle the state with hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, at a time when California’s cutting services. Strickland says voters will see through the high-speed hype.

"They’re going to see that you cut education, they’re going to see that you cut Healthy Families, but they’re also going to see that you found money for this monumental, this colossal, this project — spending money that we simply don’t have," Strickland said.

Democrats faced some opposition from within their own party. Democratic state Sen. Joe Simitian opposed the plan, saying, "This is the wrong plan in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I will be a 'no' vote." He said that the least convincing argument of all was leadership telling him to fall in line.

The bulk of the money — $2.6 billion — will pay to build the initial rail line from Madera to Bakersfield. The federal government will chip in $3.3 billion to complete the work.

The bill provides a cash windfall to local transportation agencies: $2.1 billion to upgrade existing rail systems in the state. Southern California will get nearly half of that money to improve Metrolink’s speed and capacity, and to upgrade Amtrak’s line between L.A. and San Diego so high-speed trains could share those tracks someday.

All that construction is expected to create thousands of new jobs in the region. San Fernando Democrat Alex Padilla says the economic benefit could drive a recovery in California and the nation.

"The scale of this project is clearly big," Padilla says. "I share that and appreciate that not as a reason to be scared and concerned, to go down this path, but I share it with excitement and optimism."

Before debating the legislation, the Senate defeated a motion by Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) to send the bill back to committee for violating procedures. Republican colleague Doug LaMalfa made a motion to put the decision to voters, but that motion was likewise defeated.

Long Beach Democratic state Sen. Alan Lowenthal opposed the bill. He'd said repeatedly that the Central Valley is the wrong place to start. He said that, because that line won’t connect to the Los Angeles region, it won’t attract the riders or private investment needed to finish the job. Lowenthal wants to renegotiate the terms of the federal grant.

Santa Monica Democratic Sen. Fran Pavley said the timing is all wrong, that issuing bonds for high-speed rail would put California further into debt at a time when the economy’s still sluggish and lawmakers have had to cut health and welfare programs.

Orange County Democratic Sen. Lou Correa had said the plan, which would pay to upgrade Metrolink and Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, doesn’t do enough to relieve congestion in his district — but ended up voting for it anyway.

Inland Empire Democratic Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod also voted for it, after earlier saying she saw little benefit for her constituents. She had said repeatedly that despite the rhetoric about all the jobs high-speed rail will produce, those jobs would not be where unemployment is highest.

Senators Lowenthal and Negrete McLeod are running for Congress, and Sen. Pavley faces a tough re-election fight.

The federal government had said it would withdraw the $3.3 billion for California’s high-speed rail if the state Senate did not pass the bill.

The bill now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s expected to sign it. He made the launch of high-speed rail a top priority for his administration this year.

This story has been updated.