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Vote on high-speed rail called 'big win' for California

July 7, 2012 |  7:53 am

California bullet train

The state Senate vote authorizing initial funding for California's high-speed rail project was hailed by backers Friday as a pivotal step in building the controversial project.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who had made repeated trips and telephone calls to California to push for the project, called the vote a "big win" for the state.

"No economy can grow faster than its transportation network allows," LaHood said in a statement. "With highways between California cities congested and airspace at a premium, Californians desperately need an alternative."

It is unclear when construction on the largest infrastructure project in the country can begin. The state still needs a series of regulatory approvals to start the first 130 miles of track in the Central Valley. The plan also faces lawsuits by agriculture interests and potential opposition by major freight railroads.

But proponents rejoiced at Friday's razor-thin 21-16 vote, which allocates roughly $8 billion for the first segment of track and related projects. Barring insurmountable obstacles, Californians eventually will be able to ride a bullet train — traveling as fast as 220 mph — between Los Angeles and San Francisco rather than fly or drive on aging highways.

"The Legislature took bold action today that gets Californians back to work and puts California out in front once again," Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement. The governor has been promoting the project since taking office in 2011 and is expected to sign the funding bill.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who was under intense pressure to round up votes in support of the plan, called Friday "a turning point in California, a time when we decided to say yes to hope, yes to progress, yes to the future."

The federal government, which is providing most of the money for the project, had threatened to rescind funding if the Legislature did not authorize the state's share of the funds this month.

Republicans assailed the project as a misuse of taxpayer money. Not one GOP lawmaker voted for the bill in the Senate or in the Assembly, which passed the measure Thursday before adjourning until August. Both houses are now in recess.

he bill included $5.9 billion — about $3.2 billion in federal money already committed and $2.6 billion in state bond funds — for the section of track from Madera to Bakersfield.

There was also nearly $2 billion for other rail projects, such as electrification of Cal Train tracks in the Bay Area and improvements for Metrolink in Los Angeles County.

The vote hinged not on whether high-speed rail is a good idea — Democrats have overwhelmingly favored the concept — but on whether Washington and the Brown administration had the right plan.

Sen. Joe Simitian of Palo Alto was one of four Democrats who voted no, even though he supports the long-term vision for a bullet train.

"This the wrong plan in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.

-- Chris Megerian and Ralph Vartabedian

Image: An artist's depiction of a California high-speed train. Credit: Associated Press