By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SACRAMENTO -- The Assembly on Thursday approved legislation that would authorize the state to begin selling about $4.5 billion in state bonds for the nation's first high-speed rail system, taking an initial step toward the ambitious $68 billion project that Gov. Jerry Brown hopes will be a part of his legacy.
Lawmakers approved SB1029 on a 51-27 vote Thursday afternoon, with Republicans opposing it, sending the legislation to the state Senate, where it is expected to face a more contentious vote Friday.
The bill paves the way for California to begin selling $2.6 billion in voter-approved bonds and allocates another $1.9 billion for regional rail improvements in Northern and Southern California, and allows the state to tap $3.2 billion in federal grants to start construction of the first segment in the Central Valley.
Democrats framed the debate as a choice between investing in the state's future transportation needs or getting mired in the politics of the day. The bill authorizes the first 130-mile stretch of high-speed rail from Madera to Bakersfield.
Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said it was time to "get this monumental project started."
"We've held hearing after hearing after hearing and it's been a long haul. We've studied this project for years and it's now time to begin. We've sent the authority back to the starting line, we challenged them to bring their A-game and they have," she said.
Republicans called the project a boondoggle the state cannot afford in the midst of a serious budget crisis and high unemployment. Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said lawmakers were relinquishing control over future spending to an authority that has already come under heavy criticism for flawed plans.
"The authority and the proponents haven't even come close to getting it right ever. It's been astounding the figures that they have fouled up, in terms of ridership, in terms of cost, in terms of impediment," Nielsen said.
The overall cost of the project from Los Angeles to San Francisco is estimated at $68 billion, after it was scaled back from a $98 billion proposal, but authorities have yet to identify where most of the remaining financing will come from.
Democratic leaders have spent the last few weeks crafting the bill to entice support from as many lawmakers as possible, and in recent days, they included additional financing to help electrify Caltrain, a San Jose-San Francisco commuter line, and upgrade Metrolink's commuter lines in Southern California.
Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is managing the project, tried to emphasize those projects rather than the massive high-speed rail infrastructure Thursday, as a Field Poll showed that support for Brown's November proposal to temporarily raise state sales and income taxes could slip considerably if lawmakers approve funding for high-speed rail.
"What our new business plan is all about is an integrated rail modernization program for the state," Richard, a Brown appointee, told reporters before the Assembly convened. "It's not just high-speed rail, it's $12 billion of programs that include upgrading Caltrain in the Bay area, replacing BART cars, updating the central subway system in San Francisco, building the regional interconnector in Los Angeles. These are top-priority projects, and this vote is about funding all of those."
Brown, a Democrat, has said the state needs to build new transportation infrastructure to accommodate a growing population that now stands at 37 million. Richard said if lawmakers do not act this week, they will lose the federal aid, essentially killing high-speed rail in California.
Critics say the project is unnecessary and too expensive. Republicans in the Legislature and Congress oppose the project, and some Democratic lawmakers remain skeptical. They have suggested using funds to improve existing rail systems in densely populated areas, rather than start construction in the Central Valley.
Richard said the latest proposal already includes funding for those projects.
"If we're going to build a statewide, intercity rail system, we've got to connect the state and that means we're connecting the cities. At some point, that means you're going to be building through the middle of the state," he said.
Lawmakers are under pressure from labor groups that say the project is sorely needed because it will bring jobs, particularly to a region with higher-than-average unemployment. The Obama administration has threatened to rescind federal grants if the Legislature doesn't appropriate California's share of funding in the Central Valley.
The governor is counting on those federal funds and state bonds for a total of roughly $6 billion to build the first segment. California was able to secure more than expected after Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin turned down federal money.
The authority faces a September 2017 federal deadline to finish the first segment of the line.