California high-speed rail roundup – Victory Edition

Written By Sean Jeans Gail

After a wide margin of approval from the State Assembly on July 5th,California’s high-speed rail project was approved by the State Senate in a narrow 21-16 vote.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

A divided state Senate approved billions of dollars in funding to start construction on California's ambitious high-speed rail line Friday, handing the controversial project $7.9 billion in state and federal money for the first 130 miles of track and a series of local transit upgrades.

The funding measure, which was easily approved in the Assembly Thursday, will now head to Gov. Jerry Brown, who pushed lawmakers to approve it. In all, the Legislature this week authorized the issuance of $4.6 billion in state bond funds - about half of the $9.9 billion approved by voters in 2008 - and opened the door for California to obtain $3.3 billion in federal grants, for a total of $7.9 billion.

It was a key vote: Federal transportation officials had warned that if the money were not made available this summer, they would yank the $3.3 billion in stimulus funds and give it to other states.

The news was met with a round of official statements endorsing the state legislature’s actions, starting with California’s Governor Jerry Brown (D):

“In 2008, California voters decided to create jobs and modernize our state’s rail transportation system with a major investment in high-speed rail and key local projects in Northern and Southern California. The Legislature took bold action today that gets Californians back to work and puts California out in front once again.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood:

“Today’s vote to move forward with high-speed rail is a big win for the people of California, and I congratulate the Legislature on taking action today to strengthen and grow the California economy. No economy can grow faster than its transportation network allows. With highways between California cities congested and airspace at a premium, Californians desperately need an alternative. Thanks to the leadership of Governor Brown, Senate President pro Tem Steinberg, and Assembly Speaker Perez, the construction of high speed rail in California will generate thousands of jobs and business opportunities for small businesses along the route and supplier companies throughout the state. It will ultimately deliver fast, efficient, reliable service between San Francisco Bay and the Los Angeles Basin in less than three hours. Californians have always embraced bold visions and delivered public projects that chart the way for the rest of the nation; today’s vote continues that tradition of leadership.”

California High-Speed Rail Authority Chair Dan Richard:

“Today’s vote to commence high-speed rail construction, like all major public policy decisions, is the result of hard work and collaborative effort. Credit must go to Governor Brown whose courage and steadfast leadership has improved the High-Speed Rail Authority’s plans and operations. We also express deep gratitude to Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg for passing this measure through their houses. The Legislature’s action sets in motion a Statewide Rail Modernization Plan for California. Not only will California be the first state in the nation to build a high-speed rail system to connect our urban centers, we will also modernize and improve rail systems at the local and regional level. This plan will improve mobility for commuters and travelers alike, reduce emissions, and put thousands of people to work while enhancing our economic competitiveness.”

CBS’s News covered the controversy that has surrounded the project:

But this optimistic vision of California's bullet train future clashed with the reality of the state's current budget deficit when the State Senate Friday night narrowly approved spending $ 7.9 billion on the first stage of the rail project.

Republican State Senator Tony Strickland voted against it: "This bill is spending money we just simply don't have here inCalifornia."

But California had to agree to put its own money into the project to get $3.3 billion in federal stimulus funds. Democratic State Senate President Darrell Steinberg struggled to get enough votes.

And California High-Speed Rail Blog’s Robert Cruickshank struck a note of caution in his extended look at what’s next for the project:

[Friday’s] victory was an important political win for the high speed rail project, especially after nearly two years of a relentless and increasingly effective assault on the project from high speed rail opponents. But like the November 2008 victory at the ballot box, this win is just another step in a long process to get the project built. We learned after November 2008 that we HSR supporters cannot rest and simply assume that the project will go forward as planned. Opponents still have numerous opportunities to derail this, and will surely continue to try and destroy the still-strong public and political support for this project.

Remember what happened to HSR in Texas and Florida. In both states, HSR projects were killed by Republican governors as they approached the construction phase. In Florida, it happened twice, first with Jeb Bush in 2004 and again with Rick Scott in 2011. That risk is somewhat smaller in California today, but it is very much still there.

The piece is long, but well worth the read. It should disabuse anyone that last Friday was a finish line. Rather, the vote signaled the beginning of a massive undertaking that will be hard and costly—but ultimately worthwhile. It was a reaffirmation that Americans are willing to do hard things, and sacrifice, for the sake of future prosperity. And in his speech before the vote, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) sounds out that note in his own intrepid fashion:

"In the era of term limits, how many chances do we have to vote on something this important and long lasting? How many chances do we have to vote on something that will inject a colossal stimulus into today's economy while looking into the future far beyond our days in this house? 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?"

Like Cruikshank wrote in his entry commemorating the historic win, the “other side is relentless… So are we.”