The state Senate authorized initial funding for California's high-speed rail project, handing a victory to Gov. Jerry Brown and the Obama administration, which have been pushing hard for the first-in-the-nation bullet train.
It is unclear when construction on the largest infrastructure project in the country can begin; the state still needs a series of regulatory approvals to start the first 130 miles of track in the Central Valley. The plan also faces lawsuits by agriculture interests and potential opposition by major freight railroads.
The federal government, which is providing most of the money for the project, had threatened to rescind funding if the Legislature did not authorize funds this month.
On Friday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who had made repeated trips and telephone calls to California to push for the project, called the vote a "big win" for the state.
Unions support it, but there are many skeptics. In April, California's non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office reported:
The California High–Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) is responsible for planning and constructing an intercity high–speed train that would link the state's major population centers. In April 2012, the HSRA released its most recent business plan that estimates the cost of constructing the first phase of the high–speed train project at $68 billion. However, the HSRA only has secured about $9 billion in voter approved bond funds and $3.5 billion in federal funds. Thus, the availability of future funding to construct the system is highly uncertain. The revised business plan also makes significant changes from prior plans—such as proposing to integrate high–speed rail with other passenger rail systems, constructing the southern portion of the system first, assuming lower construction costs, and using "cap–and–trade" auction revenues if additional federal funds fail to materialize. The Governor's budget plan for 2012–13 requests $5.9 billion—$2.6 billion in state bond funds matched with $3.3 billion in federal funds to begin construction of the high–speed rail line in the Central Valley. In addition, about $800 million is requested to make improvements to existing passenger rail services and about $250 million to complete preliminary design work and environmental reviews for various sections of the project.
We find that HSRA has not provided sufficient detail and justification to the Legislature regarding its plan to build a high–speed train system. Specifically, funding for the project remains highly speculative and important details have not been sorted out. We recommend the Legislature not approve the Governor's various budget proposals to provide additional funding for the project. However, we recommend that some minimal funding be provided to continue planning efforts that are currently underway. Alternatively, we recognize that the Legislature may choose to go forward with the project at this time. If so, we recommend the Legislature take a series of steps to increase the chance of the project being successfully completed.Supporters of the plan say that it will benefit the environment by providing an alternative to auto transportation. But the construction itself will harm the environment of the San Joaquin Valley, as The Fresno Bee reported in May:
The pollution anticipated from high-speed rail construction would be a small fraction of emissions already generated in the region. But in the Valley, already struggling to meet state and federal air-quality standards, any extra pollution is a major worry, said David Barber, of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
Construction pollution not only has "dire consequences" for healthy air, but it threatens the San Joaquin Valley's ability to comply with federal mandates under the federal Clean Air Act, Barber told rail-authority board members this month in Fresno.
The Valley faces several deadlines over the next 11 years to meet standards for ozone and fine particles, called PM-2.5. PM-2.5 is made up of dust and other particles that are 2.5 microns in size or smaller. A human hair, by comparison, is between 50 and 70 microns in thickness.
Barber said failure to reach those standards will have "dramatic and potentially devastating consequences in the form of federal sanctions on the Valley." Penalties could include severe limits on industrial development and the loss of billions of dollars in federal highway funds.