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Senators to vote shortly on California high-speed rail

July 6, 2012 | 12:59 pm

The vote in the California Senate on the fate of the state's high-speed rail project is scheduled to get underway at 1 p.m. 

After nearly two decades of debate, the project could be decided by one or two members. The Senate must approve an $8-billion measure, reject it or come up with a new plan for the project. The measure is backed by Gov. Jerry Brown and was approved by the state Assembly on Thursday.

It's unclear 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.

Brown is seeking approval of a long-standing plan to build 130 miles of rail in the Central Valley from Bakersfield to Madera, creating the backbone of a future rail network that would later connect with Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But the plan has met growing skepticism among some legislators who say it would put the bulk of the initial funding in a low-ridership area that would have little independent value until the full system is completed. An alternative is being crafted to change the geographic distribution of the funds.

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.

Some legislators are trying to propose a Plan B that would shift significant funding out of the Central Valley.

Democratic Sen. Mark DeSaulnier's plan 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 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.

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-- Chris Megerian and Ralph Vartabedian

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