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State senators say they won't rush bullet train plans

As California's high-speed rail leaders get set to approve a plan for the $68-billion system, some state legislators are putting on the brakes, saying the June budget deadline may be missed.

April 11, 2012|By Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times
  • Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) has been arguing for weeks that it is impractical for the rail authority to think the Senate could hold hearings and approve the $68-billion rail system in a couple of months.
Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) has been arguing for weeks that it is impractical… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

The plan to build the California bullet train is almost certain to be approved Thursday by the state's high-speed rail authority at a board meeting in San Francisco, but the project is facing a less certain future in Sacramento.

The rail authority has long insisted that it needs to move as quickly as possible, starting construction on an initial $6-billion segment of track through the Central Valley this year to meet the terms of a federal grant that covers more than half of the initial project.

But that push by the authority, labor unions and the Brown administration for quick action is running into some obstacles. A handful of state senators are insisting that the plan is arriving months past when it was expected and that they will not be rushed into approving it.

Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) has been arguing for weeks that it is impractical for the rail authority to think the Senate could hold hearings and approve the $68-billion rail system — the biggest infrastructure project in state history — in a couple of months.

As a result, the Senate's Democratic leadership is considering whether to delay including money for construction of an initial rail segment in the 2013-14 budget this spring, and instead push the decision into August before the Legislature recesses. The budget deadline is June 15, but appropriations can be made in separate legislation until Aug. 31.

"The timing is still being discussed, but we should have a better idea in the coming days," said a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. "It is not uncommon to appropriate bond funds in a bill outside of the budget act."

The project's supporters are still pushing for quicker action.

"Rolling up their sleeves and burning the midnight oil would be in order," said James Earp, executive director of the labor group California Alliance for Jobs and a member of the California Transportation Commission. If the Senate needs more time, Earp said, they will undoubtedly get it, but they should at least try to make the June budget.

The result of such a series of delays so early in the project could be a harbinger of much bigger problems years into the future. The Central Valley track would be financed with $3.3 billion in federal grants and $2.7 billion from state bond proceeds that voters approved in 2008. Simitian has argued that just because the federal funding carries a spending deadline of 2017, the state should not be hurried into making a mistake that will cost tens of billions of dollars.

Simitian said Wednesday that the rail authority's new business plan, disclosed earlier this month, is much improved over what was proposed in the past. But he added, "It behooves us to understand those significant changes."

Other senators were more blunt, including Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), whose district was skewered by the rail authority's recent decision to drop plans to send bullet trains to Anaheim.

"There's no economic, no sensible reason to cut off the Los Angeles-to-Anaheim route," Correa said Wednesday. "Upset is not a hard enough word to describe how I feel."

The rail authority dropped the Anaheim link to save $6 billion.

Correa said he reluctantly supported the entire project years ago, only because it was going to serve Orange County. "Just as my past vote was dependent on the train going to Anaheim, so will my vote be dependent on those same decisions," he said, though he added that he was not declaring a decision on how he will vote.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown has sent to the Legislature a budget order that lays out his funding request for the rail project. The technical document from Brown's Department of Finance set at least one new condition that nobody expected.

Brown wants to forbid any funding for urban rail transit projects, which are part of the so-called blended approach to the bullet train project that the rail authority has proposed, unless the Legislature also approves money for the Central Valley segment.

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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