After years of debate, skyrocketing costs and persistent concerns related to state’s fiscal crisis, the California State Senate voted 21-16 on Friday to approve the United States’ first high-speed rail project. With three senators absent, the vote elated supporters of the ambitious and expensive project. Opponents of the high speed rail were left infuriated, as they continue to maintain that the eventual plan to connect San Diego to Sacramento is fraught with pitfalls at a time when the state faces annual budget showdowns.
The vote approves $8 billion in spending, which is only one segment of what will ultimately be a $69 billion project. California’s legislature eventually settled on a plan that will allocate $6 billion to build a 130 mile track between Madera and Hanford that will serve as a “backbone” for what will grow into a 520 mile system. Opponents of the high speed rail project have questioned why construction is to begin in California’s San Joaquin Valley when the main purpose of the rail line is to link the Bay Area with Southern California. Landowners affected by the plan are also vociferously fighting the project in court.
Passage of the bill is a victory for California Gov. Jerry Brown, whose approval rating in recent months has sagged. Brown could, however, face a political defeat this fall as one-fifth of California’s voters in a recent poll indicated that they would vote against Brown’s tax measure in the November election if the legislature voted to move ahead on high speed rail.
Meanwhile supporters and opponents of the project are all over the political map; Democrats representing communities known as much for their NIMBYism as their high real estate prices, such as the Peninsula’s Joe Simitian, voted against the project. But Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, sees high speed rail as an opportunity to transform the economy and image of the San Joaquin Valley while offering residents in this city of 500,000 a fast and easy way to travel to San Francisco or Los Angeles.
Additional funds approved during this round of politicking will go towards modernizing commuter rail tracks in Southern California as well as electrifying the heavily used CalTrain line that connects Silicon Valley to San Francisco. The dream of traveling at speeds of 220 miles per hour between the Southland and Bay Area is still years away, but the long term alternative to crowded airports and driving along rickety Interstate 5 is inching ever so closer.
Images courtesy California High Speed Rail Authority.