In 2008, California voters approved a $10 billion bond for a high-speed rail system that would get travelers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours. The rail will have to travel through California’s agricultural hub -- the Central Valley -- but some local residents are trying to stop the project.
(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.
UPDATE: 7/6/2012 4:05 p.m. PT
By a narrow margin the California State Senate authorizes funding for the nation's biggest high-speed rail plan. The vote was mostly along party lines, with Democrats supporting the plan and Republicans opposing, but several powerful Democrats crossed the aisle, including the chair of the transportation committee, Mark DeSaulinier.
Republicans began the session with several procedural motions to avoid the vote all together, but even Democrats who eventually voted no, opposed that conclusion so after lengthy floor speeches about fiscal responsibility and investing in our future Democrats got the 21 votes they needed, and not one more. The final tally was 21-16.
The Democrats who voted against the plan are: Mark DeSaulnier, Joe Simitian, Alan Lowenthal and Fran Pavley.
We'll have a full analysis on Monday from KALW's Julie Caine. For now, here's our original post explaining how the west coast bullet train came within one vote of demise.
ORIGINAL POST: Today's the day of reckoning for America's most ambitious high-speed rail plan. While we wait for the verdict, here's a recap of the rocky road to laying rails from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
Let's start with the news: Last night the California State Assembly approved Governor Jerry Brown's $8 Billion proposal for a California high-speed rail plan. Today, the State Senate has to approve that plan or the project will almost certainly fade away into failure, if reports from the Sacramento Bee are accurate.
That's more common than success with high-speed rail plans in the U.S.A. Wisconsin and Florida already scrapped their HSR plans at the behest of Republican governors. Ohio too rejected federal money after crafting a plan. California's proposal -- more ambitious and expensive than any other -- has been rescued from declining public support and rising costs by a supportive Democratic governor. But today's vote is out of his hands.
Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board, hand picked by Gov. Brown after an embarrassing high-profile resignation of the previous board chair, told The Sacramento Bee and other outlets Thursday, "If the Legislature doesn't move forward with the project this week, then the secretary of transportation has made it very clear that they need to look at withdrawing the money from California and putting it some place else." In other words, if it loses political support, he'd scrap the whole thing.
So here's what the legislature is considering: As KQED reports, "The plan the Assembly passed provides for construction of a 130-mile bullet-train segment in the San Joaquin Valley and devotes about $1.5 billion to passenger-rail improvements in Southern California and the Bay Area." Some money also goes to converting commuter rail lines to be ready to merge with CAHSR. The Assembly vote was a clear sign of support: 51-27, but Democrats have a slimmer majority in the Senate, and as Reuters explains, Republicans are opposing the plan as fiscally irresponsible for these lean times.
KCRA's Mike Laurey is reporting on Twitter that some Democrats in the State Senate are feeling pressured to vote yes, but have decided against releasing state bond money for the project, including the chair of the Transportation Committee, Mark DeSaulnier.
Voters approved over $9 billion in bond money for the project in 2008 by a wide margin, but almost certainly wouldn't do so again according t0 recent polling that shows only the slimmest of majority support remains, and not among likely voters.
And if the funding is approved today, we want to know how it will be dispersed. The original plan has construction starting in the relatively less populous Central Valley and spreading out in both directions to San Francisco and Los Angeles. That means construction jobs start away from the population centers and the first beneficiaries will be on the middle of the state ... probably not that interested in taking a bullet train within their region. That will likely stay the same, but which rail agencies and which parts of the project get first funding for sticking shovels in the dirt may make the difference to legislators on the fence.
Part of the opposition has come from increasing costs. After several budget revisions and much debate, the most recent estimate for the 800 mile rail link is $68.4 billion with completion set for 2028. Initial estimates were around $45 billion. Popularity has been dropping so steadily that last month, in hopes of drumming up support, the California High Speed Rail Authority released a web video, an attempt to get rail boosterism going viral. Today we find out how well that worked.
California High Speed Rail, under fire from some GOP members of Congress, is jumping into the communications game. The organization today released a video highlighting all the benefits CASHR says it will bring to California. Not much news in it -- just a repetition of the themes that California high speed rail will help out other modes, and won't be quite as expensive as the nearly $100 billion that was on the table for a bit.
"It's just another to communicate our message with the people of California," spokeswoman Lisa Murie Burcar told TN. "We thought we'd have it go viral."
You can watch the video here:
Better, Faster, Cheaper? That's the promise being pushed by the agency in charge of California's ambitious high-speed rail project as it unveiled an updated business plan for the ambitious project to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco by bullet train. The California High-Speed Rail Authority released an updated business plan that now puts the price tag at $68.4 billion with a completion in 2028.
That's about five years sooner and $30 billion cheaper than a draft plan released last fall that drew wide criticism as a potential boondoggle. The new cost is still $25 billion more than the plan approved by voters four years ago in a referendum to allow the issue of bonds to finance the project.
The new business plan was created at the behest of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown who has remained a steadfast supported of high-speed rail unlike Republican governors in Wisconsin and Florida. Some lawmakers questioned the convenience of the new estimates in the updated business plan.
Some of the cost and time savings will come from a "blended" approach to rail construction, merging the new bullet trains with existing commuter lines. It would involve upgrading commuter rail in L.A. and in the San Francisco Bay Area while building the initial HSR line in the Central Valley as planned using federal funds. Los Angeles gets linked to the Central Valley first, then San Francisco in a following phase.
To pay for it CAHSRA wants to use "cap and trade" revenues as a potential "dedicated funding source." Private investment continues to be spotlighted as a major source.
with Julie Caine -- KALW, and Associated Press
(San Francisco, CA -- KALW) On a stop in Fresno, California today, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pushed for high-speed rail in the state.
“This is about jobs," said LaHood. "High-speed rail in California is about helping to get the California economy moving again, to get unemployment down, to put friends and neighbors to work,” said LaHood. “And implementing high-speed rail in California will do that.”
Fresno is in the heart of California’s Central Valley, where construction on the controversial project is set to begin later this year. The section of the rail line between Fresno and Bakersfield is the only segment of the estimated $100 billion project with secured funding.
“Anytime you do big things, they are always going to be controversial,” said LaHood. “There will always be those who have their objections. Our job is to understand the concerns and work to mitigate those.”
LaHood also toured a Siemens light-rail car manufacturing plant, and was scheduled to meet with state legislators in Sacramento later today.
Below is the press release from the Department of Transportation:
U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood Promotes Obama Administration Vision for High-Speed Rail in Meeting with Fresno Mayor Swearengin and Area Business Leaders
FRESNO, Calif. – U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today promoted the Obama Administration's vision for high-speed rail in a meeting with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Sacramento area business leaders. Secretary LaHood stressed high-speed rail's potential to create new construction and manufacturing jobs while providing California with a transportation network that can support the world's ninth largest economy.
"High-speed rail is a game changer for U.S. transportation and is critical for a California economy built to last," said Secretary LaHood. "President Obama has called on us to rebuild America by putting people back to work making sure our country has the safest, fastest, most efficient ways to move people and products. Building a high-speed rail network, beginning here in California's Central Valley with American workers and American companies, is a great place to start."
Construction of California's 220 miles-per-hour high-speed rail system will begin in Fresno later this year and will, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, create tens of thousands of jobs over the next five years in a region hit especially hard by the recession. The state's high-speed rail project would connect Fresno and other communities in the Central Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin, two of the country's largest metropolitan areas, with travel times under two hours.
Through a "Buy America" approach to construction, the Obama Administration is ensuring that high-speed rail projects are built with American-made products. In addition, 30 rail companies from around the world have pledged that if selected for high-speed rail contracts, they will hire American workers and expand their bases of operations in the United States.
The Central Valley is the fastest growing part of California, and one of the fastest growing regions in the country. By 2050, the region will double in size to more than 13 million people, making it more populated than Illinois, Pennsylvania or Ohio. Today, the Central Valley supports the fifth busiest intercity passenger corridor in the nation.
California is already home to six of the 10 most congested metropolitan areas and the busiest short-haul air market in the nation. The stress on the state's infrastructure will become even more pronounced during the next 40 years, as the state's population is estimated to grow by more than 20 million people. Without constructing the high-speed rail system, the California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates the state would need to invest $171 billion to acquire the equivalent level of capacity—2,300 miles of new highways, 115 new airport gates, and four new airport runways.
"Our highways and airports simply can't handle the growth," said Secretary LaHood. "At this make or break moment, America needs a transportation jobs bill that includes resources to continue building a national high-speed rail network."
California's intercity passenger rail system is one of several regional rail networks planned across the United States. To date, the U.S. Department of Transportation has invested $10.1 billion to put American communities on track toward new and expanded rail service with improved reliability, speed, and frequency of existing service.