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U.S. prods California lawmakers to take quick action on bullet train

May 10, 2012 |  2:09 pm

Concerned about possible delays in state funding of high-speed rail, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told California leaders Thursday that the Legislature needs to send a signal that it is committed to the project by including money for it in the state budget to be approved next month.

LaHood traveled to Sacramento for meetings with Gov. Jerry Brown, legislative leaders and some lawmakers who are questioning whether to continue funding for the $68-billion project, for which the federal government has pledged $3.3 billion in matching funds.

"What I have said to them is, 'We need a strong signal that you are committed to the money for the match, sooner rather than later. We can’t wait until the end of summer,'" LaHood recounted at a news  conference following his meeting with state Senate leaders.

LaHood said he was "reassured" by Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) "that they are committed to high-speed rail and they are committed to making sure that California is able to provide the match that is needed."

But other lawmakers are resistant. "What I have been reading about is they are planning on holding hearings, that they are going to go throughout summer. That doesn’t suit us," LaHood said.

The meeting was also attended by Sens. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) who have balked at quick action to approve the state’s $2.7-billion share of the first $6 billion construction segment in the Central Valley.

Simitian, who chairs a budget subcommittee on rail,  said after the meeting that he remains convinced the Legislature should continue to hold holding hearings and conduct more study toward a decision on funding in August. The budget will include operating funds for the rail authority, but he said it is "unlikely'' he would support approving $2.7 billion in bond funding for the construction in the budget scheduled for action by June 15.

"That's not the kind of thing you ought to do on a hurry-up basis,'' Simitian said. "I continue to believe that this is a decision that requires thoughtful deliberation.''

Steinberg told reporters the Legislature has a lot on its plate between now and June 15, and he did not provide a date for action. "I understand the urgency on high-speed rail,'' he said. "I think it’s an opportunity to create jobs and to boost the economy and we’ll work it out with the [Brown] administration and with the federal administration in terms of a date to take a vote on it.”

LaHood’s message went beyond the leadership to the skeptics. "I wanted to be sure that I personally deliver the message that President Obama’s administration is committed to high-speed rail in California," he added. "We have made a commitment of over $3 billion. We want to make sure that our partners here realize what is at stake."

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-- Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento

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