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 US$68 billion.
The project, expected to take decades to complete, was championed by Democratic Governor of California 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.
However, in a 21 to 16 vote, the state Senate approved an initial round of funding that would include the issuance of US$2.6 billion in state bonds, which would in turn unlock US$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 Legislative Assembly by a 51 to 27 vote on Thursday, would also spend more than US$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.
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.
The opinion of voters on the high-speed rail line has soured since a 2008 statewide vote in which Californians approved nearly US$10 billion in state debt to help finance the plan. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll in June 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 US 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 US has fallen sharply in the World Economic Forum’s ranking of national infrastructure systems in recent years. In its 2007 to 2008 report, US infrastructure ranked sixth in the world, but fell to 16th in this year’s report.