California lawmakers approve first dedicated high-speed rail in the U.S.

July 8, 2012

Government/Politics

California lawmakers approve first dedicated high-speed rail in the US

By Juliet Williams
Associated Press 

SACRAMENTO — The California Assembly on Thursday approved legislation that would authorize the state to begin selling about $4.5 billion in state bonds for the nation’s first high-speed rail system, taking an initial step toward the ambitious $68 billion project that Gov. Jerry Brown hopes will be a part of his legacy.

Lawmakers approved SB1029 on a 51-27 vote Thursday afternoon, with Republicans opposing it, sending the legislation to the state Senate, where it is expected to face a more contentious vote Friday.

The bill paves the way for California to begin selling $2.6 billion in voter-approved bonds and allocates another $1.9 billion for regional rail improvements in Northern and Southern California, and allows the state to tap $3.2 billion in federal grants to start construction of the first segment in the Central Valley.

Democrats framed the debate as a choice between investing in the state’s future transportation needs or getting mired in the politics of the day. The bill authorizes the first 130-mile stretch of high-speed rail from Madera to Bakersfield.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said it was time to “get this monumental project started.”

“We’ve held hearing after hearing after hearing and it’s been a long haul. We’ve studied this project for years and it’s now time to begin. We’ve sent the authority back to the starting line, we challenged them to bring their A-game and they have,” she said.

Republicans called the project a boondoggle the state cannot afford in the midst of a serious budget crisis and high unemployment. Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, said lawmakers were relinquishing control over future spending to an authority that has already come under heavy criticism for flawed plans.

“The authority and the proponents haven’t even come close to getting it right ever. It’s been astounding the figures that they have fouled up, in terms of ridership, in terms of cost, in terms of impediment,” Nielsen said.

The overall cost of the project from Los Angeles to San Francisco is estimated at $68 billion, after it was scaled back from a $98 billion proposal, but authorities have yet to identify where most of the remaining financing will come from.

Democratic leaders have spent the last few weeks crafting the bill to entice support from as many lawmakers as possible, and in recent days, they included additional financing to help electrify Caltrain, a San Jose-San Francisco commuter line, and upgrade Metrolink’s commuter lines in Southern California.

Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is managing the project, tried to emphasize those projects rather than the massive high-speed rail infrastructure Thursday, as a Field Poll showed that support for Brown’s November proposal to temporarily raise state sales and income taxes could slip considerably if lawmakers approve funding for high-speed rail.

“What our new business plan is all about is an integrated rail modernization program for the state,” Richard, a Brown appointee, told reporters before the Assembly convened. “It’s not just high-speed rail, it’s $12 billion of programs that include upgrading Caltrain in the Bay area, replacing BART cars, updating the central subway system in San Francisco, building the regional interconnector in Los Angeles. These are top-priority projects, and this vote is about funding all of those.”

Brown also focused on the local improvements rather than the high-speed project that has seen faltering public support.

“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,” Brown said in a statement released by his office.

Brown, a Democrat, has said the state needs to build new transportation infrastructure to accommodate a growing population that now stands at 37 million. Richard said if lawmakers do not act this week, they will lose the federal aid, essentially killing high-speed rail in California.

Critics say the project is unnecessary and too expensive. Republicans in the Legislature and Congress oppose the project, and some Democratic lawmakers remain skeptical. They have suggested using funds to improve existing rail systems in densely populated areas, rather than start construction in the Central Valley.

Richard said the latest proposal already includes funding for those projects.

“If we’re going to build a statewide, intercity rail system, we’ve got to connect the state and that means we’re connecting the cities. At some point, that means you’re going to be building through the middle of the state,” he said.

Lawmakers are under pressure from labor groups that say the project is sorely needed because it will bring jobs, particularly to a region with higher-than-average unemployment. The Obama administration has threatened to rescind federal grants if the Legislature doesn’t appropriate California’s share of funding in the Central Valley.

The governor is counting on those federal funds and state bonds for a total of roughly $6 billion to build the first segment. California was able to secure more than expected after Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin turned down federal money.

The authority faces a September 2017 federal deadline to finish the first segment of the line.

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Video: CBS Evening News -California high-speed rail project


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Video: California High Speed Rail- State Senate floor vote on HSR appropriation

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Video: California high-speed rail

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Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

North Carolina and Virginia recommend Southeast High Speed Rail Project alternatives to FRA

North Carolina Department of Transportation

RALEIGH – The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) have submitted the Southeast High Speed Rail (SEHSR) Tier II Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Recommendation Report to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).  The document identifies the two states’ recommendations to FRA for the preferred rail alternative for each of the 26 sections of the SEHSR corridor between Richmond, Va. and Raleigh.

The recommendations are based on public, local government, and agency comments received on the Draft EIS, which was published in May 2010 and presented to the public in a series of meetings along the corridor in Virginia and North Carolina.  Other input to the recommendations includes assessment of community and environmental impacts, issues regarding train operations and construction as well as costs. The report is available to the public via the SEHSR website www.sehsr.org and DRPT’s website www.drpt.virginia.gov.

A draft of the Recommendation Report was made available to the public in February 2012.  Based on new information received in response to the draft report, one change to a recommended alternative was made within a short section of the project in Wake Forest, NC. All other recommendations have been carried forward in the final report.  North Carolina’s Board of Transportation agreed with the report on March 8, 2012, and it was adopted by the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board on March 14, 2012.

Once approved by FRA, the preferred alternatives identified in the Recommendation Report will be presented in the forthcoming Tier II Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and could be published in early 2013. That would be followed by an official Record of Decision (ROD) from FRA and a second round of public hearings.

The 162-mile Richmond to Raleigh segment of SEHSR is an integral part the overall Washington, D.C., to Charlotte rail corridor. Existing rail lines and rail rights of way will be used as much as possible to accommodate recommended improvements. The project will reduce traffic congestion, increase safety along the train corridor and serve long-distance business and leisure travelers between and beyond Virginia and North Carolina.

 

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