Boondoggles

Cracks Appear in California State Senate as High-Speed Rail Vote Approaches Station

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I've run out of clever things to say about trains. Sorry.

Next week marks the announced deadline for the California state Senate to agree to issue bonds to fund the first leg of the $69 billion high-speed rail project. The deadline is intended to give the state enough lead time to begin construction before the end of the year in order to qualify for $3.5 billion in matching stimulus funds from the federal government.

But Sacramento columnist Dan Walters is taking note that some state Senate Democrats are balking. They might not have the votes after all:

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has publicly pledged to approve construction funds and wants a vote next week. Just weeks ago, Senate approval appeared certain, but with Republicans solidly opposed, Steinberg needs support from 20 of the 24 other Democratic senators. At the moment, the votes aren't there.

Three Democrats—Mark DeSaulnier, Alan Lowenthal and Joe Simitian—have been openly skeptical of the project. At least three others, and probably more, are unconvinced and uncommitted, vote counters say.

Steinberg suffered a setback this week when Democratic senators strongly objected to placing hundreds of millions of dollars in bullet train property acquisition and engineering money in the budget bill before a vote on proceeding with a 100-mile segment in the San Joaquin Valley.

A revised budget bill that removed the disputed funds was quickly written and placed on the floors of both houses Wednesday.

Also of note: DeSaulnier is up for re-election in November, term-limited Lowenthal is running for Congress, and term-limited Simitian just won a seat on Santa Clara County's Board of Supervisors. San Jose, where a public vote to reform public employee pension benefits also passed in June, is Santa Clara County's seat. Gov. Jerry Brown may ignore the public polls turning against the train, but not all Democrats have that option.

Brown may regret ignoring the polls anyway. A commenter on Walters' column points out that issuing bonds for high-speed rail could jeopardize Brown's pet tax increase vote come November. I can see the campaign ads in my head now blanketing the airwaves, pointing out that Sacramento expects voters to approve a tax increase after spending billions on a train project the majority no longer wants.

Over at the federal level in Congress, House Republicans voted today to block future use of federal funds on California's high-speed rail. The vote was along party lines and wouldn't affect the money already earmarked, so it will probably go nowhere fast (train pun here).