California approves high-speed rail plan

By Mary Slosson ,Reuters

SACRAMENTO, California — California lawmakers gave final approval to a high-speed rail plan on Friday in a make-or-break vote for US$8 billion in funding to start construction on a 130-mile (210-km) section of track through the state’s central agricultural heartland. The 21-16 vote in the state Senate was a substantial win for Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who says a bullet train network will boost job creation and provide an alternative to car and plane travel in the country’s most populous state. Unions also lobbied hard for the network, the most ambitious public works project to date in California. Republicans opposed it, saying the US$68 billion project would be a massive financial burden that could jeopardize state spending on basic services such as education and healthcare.

“The Legislature took bold action today that gets Californians back to work and puts California out in front once again,” Brown said in a statement after the vote, which passed with the minimum number of required “yes” votes in the Democratic-led Senate. Outside the Senate chamber, union representatives counted votes closely and cheered when it became clear the bill would be approved. The state and federal financing approved by the legislature includes the issuance of US$2.6 billion in state bonds, which would in turn unlock US$3.2 billion in federal funds for construction of track in the Central Valley that was expected to begin at the end of 2012 or the start of 2013. The bill, which passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly by a 51-27 vote on Thursday, also approves spending over US$2 billion in federal, state and local funds on rail projects in urban areas to prepare to link them to a statewide system.

The bullet train network, expected to take decades to complete, would eventually connect Sacramento and San Francisco to Los Angeles, with stops along the way. “Literally, this project means tens of thousands of jobs,” said Mark Kyle, director of government affairs for the Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3, which was among the bill’s supporters. California has a 10.8 percent unemployment rate. Kyle, whose group represents operators of large construction equipment, added he was confident the High Speed Rail Authority would attract private money to help build the entirety of its planned system.