(Oakland, Calif -- KALW) California Governor Jerry Brown scored a razor-thin legislative victory on Friday when the California State Legislature voted to release initial funding for high-speed rail—a major infrastructure project that he wholeheartedly supports. The plan got the green light four years after voters first approved a bond measure that would help build a network connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles.
The vote to release $8 billion in state and federal funds came at the tail end of sessions on Governor Brown’s latest state budget, which includes potentially drastic cuts to many social, educational, health and public safety programs.
The state still has not secured any of the additional money needed to complete the $68 billion project.
Plans for the bullet train have become increasingly unpopular among voters in California. And up until the last minute on Friday, the future of the project remained uncertain. The State Assembly had already approved funding for initial construction by a wide margin the day before, but the sharply divided state senate also had to approve the proposal. Support falls mostly on party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against the plan. If just five Democrats joined Republicans, that would have been the end of bullet train bond money.
In the end, four Democratic senators voted against the plan—including Transportation Committee Chair Mark DeSaulnier (Concord), Alan Lowenthal (Long Beach), and Joe Simitian (Palo Alto), all of whom had played key roles in the development and oversight of the plan. Fran Pavely (Agoura Hills) also voted against the plan.
Senator Simitian—a long-time supporter of high-speed rail—said that while he staunchly supports the vision of high-speed rail in California, he could not support the current plan, which he said was very different in “scope, content and price,” than what voters approved in 2008.
Sen. Simitian said passage of the high-speed rail plan could imperil Brown’s chances of getting voter approval for statewide tax increases in November that could generate as much as $40 billion in badly needed revenue.
Not a single Republican senator voted to support the plan, and many invoked the upcoming tax initiative and cuts to education in their statements prior to the vote.
The money approved on Friday will combine with $3.3 billion in federal Recovery Act funds, to pay for initial construction of the high-speed rail line in the Central Valley, running between Fresno and Bakersfield. In addition, money approved on Friday includes $2 billion in “connectivity” funds—that will pay for improvements to existing commuter rail lines in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Approving the funding is just one of many hurdles for the beleaguered plan. The bullet train faces ongoing lawsuits, as well as vocal opposition from Central Valley farmers.