After much hemming and hawing, the threat of lawsuits from NIMBYs on the Peninsula, and much spilt ink about the price tag, it looks like California will get a high-speed rail line after all. The beginning of one, anyway. The State Senate voted Friday to approve the first $8 billion allocation for the project, which could begin construction in the Central Valley as soon as six months from now. In that $8 billion is also money for improving local rail service at either end of the project, including $750 million to electrify and modernize CalTrain, $140 million going to BART for new train cars, and $60 million to Muni for the Central Subway.
The vote was dramatic because it barely passed with just 21 votes, exactly the number needed, after some arm-twisting by Governor Brown and under pressure of losing $3.3 billion in federal funding. A number of Democratic senators, including three who served on the Senate's unofficial high-speed rail oversight committee, voted against the plan, saying it's too soon in the current economy and too risky an undertaking, with the possibility that the central "backbone" of the line could get built and the rest of it never finished if the funding never materializes. Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) gave a 17-minute speech you can hear below in which he discusses how he's been a supporter of high-speed rail since 2002, and he's served as the head of the unofficial oversight committee for the project. But he said, "We're not being asked to vote on a vision today. We're being asked to vote on a particular plan. So the question we have to ask ourselves today is 'Is this a plan that is worthy of our support.'" Simitian voted no yesterday, and it's unclear to us whether that was purely about being fiscally cautious, or if he finally felt he needed to cave to his Peninsula constituency who have been among the most vocal opponents of having a bullet train in their backyards there was an outcry last year, as you may recall, claiming that the option of routing the trains across the Bay (via a specially built bridge) had not been thoroughly studied.
Meanwhile, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said that voting for the project was all about vision, and seeing beyond the short-term risks. "Do we have the ability to see beyond the challenges, the political point-scoring and controversies of today? Are we willing to take some short-term risk, knowing that the benefit to this great state will be, for centuries, enormous?" he asked.
In total, the project is now estimated to cost $69 billion (that could always change), and $20 billion more is needed to get started, which is expected to come from private sources and federal grants. The $8 billion just approved includes the selling of $4.6 billion in voter-approved bonds, and the $3.3 billion in unlocked federal funds. Supporters hope that movement on the project will spur further investment. Most of the money approved yesterday will go toward building the initial segment of rail from Bakersfield to Madera which some of criticized as an "upgraded Amtrak link" from nowhere to nowhere. It will be 2029, or later, before you will be able to get from S.F. to L.A. in three hours without a plane.
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