Despite Simitian's 'No,' High-Speed Rail Approved by Senate

State can now release $8 billion of Prop 1A funds to commence highly contentious project.

Shovels will soon be on the ground in the Central Valley after the approval of the initial funds of the proposed $68 billion California High-Speed Rail, Friday afternoon.

"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," said California High-Speed Rail Authority Board Chair Dan Richard. "This plan will improve mobility for commuters and travelers alike, reduce emissions, and put thousands of people to work while enhancing our economic competitiveness.”

State Senators managed to garner the 21 votes needed for passage of SB 1029 that now releases nearly $8 billion in Prop 1A funds from the 2008 state ballot initiative, which also include $3.2 billion in federal funds—that would have been pulled otherwise. The money will also provide funds for the electrification of Caltrain to the tune of $700 million.

However it didn't get the support of democrats like Senator Joseph Simitian (D-Palo Alto)—chair of the high-speed rail committee and candidate for a Santa Clara County Supervisor seat—who voted against the project.

"This is the wrong plan in the wrong place in the wrong time," Simitian said on the senate floor about his fear that the project will cost "20 times" more.

Simitian's current and potential future constituents have a lot at stake because of the project. Over the last several years opposition had grown in cities like Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Belmont, among others, that questioned the ridership projections and environmental impact of the rail. Some homeowners worried about losing their propoerty to railroad tracks and about the aesthetics and inconvenience of above-grade or at-grade rails.

According to Caltrain officials however, the future of the commuter rail—which stretches across Simitian's senatorial district and likely supervisorial districts—hinged on these extra Prop 1A funds. The bill authorizes $600 million in high-speed rail funds to modernize Caltrain and another $100 million in connectivity funding.

A statement by Caltrain explained that the vote was "an important milestone in bringing modern electric rail service to the Bay Area." The electrification would "provide more service, carry more riders, get more cars off the roads, reduce the operating subsidy and reduce pollution.

"There is a generational responsibility to leave behind a world that is better than the one we found," said Executive Director Mike Scanlon. "This speaks to that responsibility.

Other advocates praised the approval as a win for voters since the passage now advances the 2008 vote by the people and will boost the state's economy.

"Back then, individuals from around the state supported a high-speed rail vision that would have a direct effect on relieving some of our state’s most challenging transportation and quality of life problems," said Daniel Krause, executive director of the advocacy group Californians For High Speed Rail. "High-speed rail will also provide a foundation for ongoing economic prosperity because it provides a solution to our overtaxed transportation system."

But the project remains controversial. The Senate opposition raised questions about where more funds would come from and how the project starts in one of the least populated areas of the state.

Insofar as Caltrain, the Bay Area rail will now have the additional funding for its $1.5 billion project. Electric train service could be operating on the Caltrain corridor as soon as 2019, they said.

The bill now moves to Governor Jerry Brown's desk. It's expected that he will sign.

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