High-speed rail funds approved by California lawmakers

The California state Senate gave a nod of approval to the state's high-speed rail plan on Friday in a make-or-break vote for funding to start construction on a project whose overall cost has been pegged at $68 billion.

The project, expected to take decades to complete, was championed by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who says a bullet train network will boost job creation and provide an alternative to car and plane travel in the country's most populous state.

Unions also lobbied hard for what amounts to the most ambitious public works project to date in California, which has a 10.8 percent unemployment rate. Republicans opposed it, saying the project would be a massive financial burden for the state.

But in a 21-16 vote, the state Senate approved an initial round of funding that would include the issuance of $2.6 billion in state bonds, which would in turn unlock $3.2 billion in funds from Washington to build a Central Valley track.

“The Legislature took bold action today that gets Californians back to work and puts California out in front once again,” Governor Jerry Brown said in a statement after the vote.

The initial financing, which passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly by a 51-27 vote on Thursday, would also spend more than $2 billion in a mix of federal, state and local funds on rail projects in urban areas to prepare to link them to a statewide system. Those projects include trains for BART, electrification for Caltrain and funds for Muni's Central Subway.

Outside the Senate chamber, union representatives counted votes closely and cheered when it became clear the bill would be approved.

“Literally, this project means tens of thousands of jobs,” said Mark Kyle, director of government affairs for the Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3, which was among the bill's supporters.

Kyle, whose group represents operators of large construction equipment, added he was confident the High Speed Rail Authority would attract private money to help build the entirety of its planned system.

Voter sentiment on the high-speed rail line has soured since a 2008 statewide vote in which Californians approved nearly $10 billion in state debt to help finance the plan. A June USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that a majority of voters would oppose the project if given another chance to vote on it.

The California high-speed rail project is the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's priority to upgrade the nation's transportation infrastructure, a goal he highlighted in this year's state of the union address.

The United States has fallen sharply in the World Economic Forum's ranking of national infrastructure systems in recent years. In its 2007-2008 report, U.S. infrastructure ranked sixth in the world but fell to 16th in the 2011-2012 report.

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