California Greenlights Historic High Speed Rail Project

California lawmakers have overcome fiscal objections to approve funding for the first leg of its biggest public works project in decades – the first high speed rail system in the US.

On July 6, a bill passed by the California Senate authorizes $4.5 billion in voter-approved bonds, including $2.6 billion for the first segment of the project in the Central Valley.

The Senate passed the measure 21-16, with all 15 Republicans voting against it. The Assembly approved the bill earlier in the week, and it now heads to Governor Jerry Brown for signature, who has lobbied hard to get high speed rail.

The timing of the vote is critical, because it means California will receive an additional $3.2 billion in federal funds for the initial phase, on top of the $928.6 million grant awarded last year.

The first leg, which will take several years to complete, connects Bakersfield to Madera, cutting the 130-mile trip from three hours to under an hour, and connecting to local transit and commuter services along the way. And it will quickly put 100,000 people back to work.

When the entire network is finished in 2028, high speed rail will link California’s urban centers, connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles in just three hours, while creating about a million jobs. 

It will also upgrade local rail networks, such as the electrification of Caltrain, which travels through the Bay Area.

"Not only will California be the first state in the nation to build a high-speed rail system to connect our urban centers, we will also modernize and improve rail systems at the local and regional level," says Dan Richard, Chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. "This plan will improve mobility for commuters and travelers alike, reduce emissions, and put thousands of people to work while enhancing our economic competitiveness."

Initially approved in 2008 by California voters, high speed rail has been plagued by bickering over its estimated price tag of $68 billion, which Republicans say throw the state off a fiscal cliff.

Project proponents, however, point to the problems austerity has caused in Europe and see it as a much needed stimulus to boost the economy.

"Investments in high-speed rail, both in the Central Valley and at the urban bookends, will pump more than $8 billion into California’s economy, creating thousands of direct and indirect jobs. Over the next few years, at a time when we must kick our economy back into gear, the increased tax revenues generated from these jobs will more than offset debt servicing costs," says Daniel Krause, Executive Director of Californians For High-Speed Rail, in an editorial in the Venture County Star.

"In the long term, high-speed rail will help usher a much more efficient transportation system, which is a key component to sustained economic prosperity. Continued gridlock, coupled with volatile oil prices, hurts California businesses in the worst way," Krause adds.

"California’s population will grow by 60 percent over the next 40 years. Investing in a green job creating high-speed rail network is less expensive and more practical than paying for all of the expansions to already congested highways and airports that would be necessary to accommodate the state’s projected population boom," says Ray LaHood, Secretary of the US Department of Transportation.

The project is being compared to the state’s investment in water infrastructure during the 1950s. That system of canals, dams and reservoirs is more vital than ever for the economic health of the state.

On a national level, the GOP has voted to block home weatherization, high speed rail and incentives for people to buy electric cars, all of which are significant job-creators in addition to being crucial for energy efficiency.

Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida rejected federal high speed rail funds, but projects are moving head in 30 states, notes Art Guzetti, VP of Policy at the American Public Transportation Association.

14 countries have high speed trains and China is moving full speed ahead, completing over 800 miles of track in just 39 months, and planning 28,000 miles by 2015. Meanwhile, Europe is beginning to power rail lines with solar energy:

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