State Legislature Appropriates $8 billion, but it is Certainly not for High Speed Rail

Morris Brown
Founder of DERAIL, a grassroots effort against the California high-speed rail Project

On Friday, the State Senate passed by a 21:16 margin an appropriation bill for $8 billion. The leadership claims it is for High Speed Rail, but that certainly is not the case.

Not a single Republican voted for the bill which needed 21 votes to pass. There are 25 Democrats in the State Senate. Four Democratic Senators, Alan Lowenthal, Joe Simitian, Mark DeSaulnier and Fran Pavley, had the will and guts to oppose the bill, leaving the other 21 Democrats with just enough votes to pass the bill.

Amazing as it may seem, these 4 Democrat Senators, all of whom had been active in committee work and were the few who knew the project well, all voted against bonds for the project. The other 21 Democrat Senators were led like sheep to approve spending money the state doesn’t have by Senators Steinberg and Mark Leno and Gov. Jerry Brown.

Talk about shady dealings. The appropriation bill was devised behind closed doors; no Republican was allowed to be involved; and the bill language was not released to anyone until late on July 3rd, giving little time for appropriate legislative consideration. Also kept private and not released until two days before the vote was a Legislative Counsel opinion on the legality of items in the business plan. Nonetheless, the Senate chose to ignore some of the findings.

Senators Leland Yee (San Francisco) and Noreen Evans (Santa Rosa) both said on Thursday they would vote against the appropriation. Yet both voted in favor of high-speed rail on Friday. Just what did Gov. Brown and the Senate leadership give these two Senators to persuade them to change their votes?

The Chair of the Authority board, Dan Richard, in conjunction with Senate leadership, has now repositioned what the Prop 1A voter-approved bond measure will fund. It’s no longer funding for high-speed rail, but rather underwrites “rail modernization” for old-style, low-speed passenger rail projects.

Prop 1A was passed in Nov 2008 by a 52.5% to 47.5% margin. It was presented to voters as a $33 billion project, which was to fund high-speed trains running on electrical power, speeding up to 220 mph, and being able to provide passengers a one-seat ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hr and 40 minutes.

Four years later, we are looking at a project cost of between $68 and $80 billion to bring about train schedules that will take at least 3-1/2 hours for a non-stop San Francisco – Los Angeles trip and even longer for trains that make local stops in the San Joaquin Valley. Projected ticket prices have also risen compared to what voters were told.

The methods used to push the bill through on a holiday week, just before the legislature’s recess, would be illegal at the local or county level. Because of state-mandated measures like the Brown act, public notice of such actions well in advance of taking a vote are required. But the legislature seems to do anything they wish at whatever time they want. In this case the leadership shut out the public and effectively shut out almost all legislative opposition as well.

The high-speed rail project has become unpopular with the voters. Opposition along different parts of the line, especially in the Central Valley, is huge. A Field poll shows that statewide about 60% of the voters want it stopped.

The core part of the appropriation, almost $6 billion of the $8 billion, is to fund a 130-mile stretch of tracks in the low ridership area of the Central Valley. These tracks will have neither electrical power nor Positive Train Control and other systems, all of which are needed for a 200 mph train.

Senator Simitian, a Democrat and a long supporter of high-speed rail, in his remarks stating why the appropriation for this project should be voted down, ended with:

“Regrettably, the only conclusion I can come to today is that this is the wrong plan in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I will be a ‘no’ vote.”

The Senate failed by one vote to defeat the bill.

Funding to pay the interest on high-speed rail bonds will come from the general fund, and there is only so much in the state’s treasury to go around. Hence, California’s education system and other programs more deserving of support are now at an even greater risk of being stripped of revenues in the future.

California’s high-speed rail battle will now be fought outside of our legislative chambers. A re-vote is justified as polls now say a majority of the public would pull the plug on high-speed rail if given the chance. The legislature should immediately draft and pass a proposition for this November’s ballot, which would give the voters of California a chance to either reject or affirm going ahead with this project.

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