Will the state Senate vote to stop bullet train in its tracks?
After nearly two decades of debate, the decision to move ahead on the California high-speed rail project will come down to a state Senate vote on Friday afternoon that could be decided by one or two members.
The Senate will have to accept an $8-billion measure backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, reject it or come up with a new spending plan of its own for the project. The state Assembly approved Brown's plan on Thursday.
Democratic leaders are attempting to jam wavering Senators into a difficult position of falling in line behind the Brown plan or risking playing chicken with the federal government on an alternative plan.
The Obama administration has warned that it would rescind $3.2 billion in grants and appropriations if the Legislature does not act to approve major construction in the Central Valley and do it before adjourning for the summer recess.
But nobody is sure whether Brown has the votes he needs to get his plan through the Senate. Dan Richard, the state rail authority chairman, was in hyper drive on Thursday lobbying for the Brown plan. Organized labor was similarly in high gear promoting one of its biggest priorities of the year.
Democratic senators Mark DeSaulnier, Joe Simitian, Alan Lowental, Lou Correa, Fran Pavley, Gloria Negrete McLeod and Leland Yee say they are undecided on, skeptical about or opposed to the Brown plan. Every one of the chamber’s 15 Republicans is expected to vote against the project.
Pavley, whose newly redrawn Senate district is far more conservative than her previous one, is concerned about the finances, the timing and unintended consequences of any decision to go ahead with the project, said spokesman Chuck Dalldorf.
Yee said, “I'm clearly not a yes vote." He said he likes high-speed rail but feels the plan has been botched and that state rail officials have done a "horrible job" reaching out to the community. "The problem is, the High-Speed Rail Authority has lost track of its original mission," he said. He added: "It's hard for me to support a proposal giving them billions of dollars, for what?"
Correa has said previously that he would vote no unless the project does something to relieve congestion in his Anaheim district. DeSaulnier, Simitian and Lowenthal have consistently said they are deeply concerned about the management of the project.
On Thursday, DeSaulnier said, "I remain unconvinced of the wisdom of their proposal. Which is another way of saying I'm still a no." And Simitian would not say how he would vote, only that he would reveal that and his remaining concerns on the Senate floor. But he said he's glad money was included for electrifying Cal Train tracks, allowing them to carry more efficient engines and high-speed trains in the Bay Area.
In the end, however, the cumulative weight of the Democratic leadership on those Senators may persuade them to toe the party line, some observers say.
Before adjourning for the summer recess Thursday, the Assembly approved the Brown plan, 51-27, as expected. It provides about $6 billion for a 130-mile section of track through the Central Valley and about $2 billion of sweeteners for Los Angeles and San Francisco.
DeSaulnier hopes he can offer an alternative plan, though it would mean defying the federal government’s demand for prompt action. DeSaulnier would cut funding to the Central Valley to just $2 billion and reallocate most of the money to rail projects in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His plan is based on a concern that California may never get the funding to build a complete $68-billion system and whatever money is spent should have an immediate value to relieving commuter congestion in the two main metropolitan regions of the state.
Under DeSaulnier’s plan, known in the Legislature as Plan B, $400 million would be allocated to Los Angeles' Union Station, reconfiguring the tracks so trains could pass through rather than having to back in or out of the station. Another $264 million would be allocated to grade separations between Los Angeles and Anaheim, where tracks cross streets. The combination of the Union Station projects and grade separations would allow Metrolink commuter trains to cut up to 20 minutes off their travel times, according to Senate sources.
Meanwhile, San Francisco would get $2.5 billion to build a tunnel to connect its Cal Train system to a new station downtown.
If the Senate approves Plan B, it would have to iron out the differences with the Assembly. But since the Assembly adjourned for the summer recess after approving its measure, any compromise could not occur until next month.
Some Senate analysts believe that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's recent demand for quicker action is a bluff and that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) would never allow the Obama administration to rescind money that would also help her district.
But so far, LaHood and Pelosi are holding firm.
A Transportation Department official said, "We've consistently said that federal funds awarded to the high-speed rail project must go to the Central Valley segment of the project in accordance with their grant agreement, and that California’s matching funds for the Central Valley segment are required to complete the project applied for by the state."
And a spokesman for Pelosi said, "The California High-Speed Rail Authority, under the leadership of Chairman Dan Richard, has laid out a clear plan to achieve this vision, which includes the Central Valley high-speed backbone along with early investments in our urban centers in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The Legislature must vote to show their support for this job-creating project by passing state funds -– any alternative risks billions in federal dollars and tens of thousands jobs."
Meanwhile, Brown seemed confident after the Assembly vote Thursday. "I commend the Assembly for supporting billions of dollars in job-creating rail infrastructure investment in Los Angeles, the Central Valley and the Bay Area," he said.
-- Ralph Vartabedian in Los Angeles and Chris Megerian in Sacramento
Photo: An artist's rendering of the proposed San Jose stop on the high-speed rail line. Credit: Bloomberg.