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California bullet train bill survives Senate showdown

(The following story by Erik N. Nelson appeared on the Contra Costa times website on July 1.)

SACRAMENTO Calif. — The project to build high-speed rail connecting Northern and Southern California survived a showdown in a State Senate committee Tuesday, beating back a Republican effort to remove a $10 billion bond measure from the Nov. 4 ballot.

The Senate Transportation and Housing Committee voted 8-4 to approve AB3034, which re-crafts the ballot measure in part to win more official and voter support for the $42 billion to $45 billion system. At the same time, the panel approved a controversial civil service work rule that some feared could tie the project up in court and erode the bond measure's support.

"We've got an improved foundation for the bond issue," Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority's governing board, said after the vote. "We're on the ballot and we've been on the ballot," but the bill would make changes sought by all critical bill supporters, such as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders.

Among the bill's 33 provisions are limiting bond money from paying more than half of any track or station construction cost so that federal, private or local funds would have to pay for the remainder, and allowing only 10 percent of that money for planning and engineering costs.

The bill also would establish an eight-member independent review committee appointed by state financial and legislative leaders.

The bill's previous language would have loosened requirements that the money be spent first on a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco leg and allowed the money to go to other segments, such as Fresno to Sacramento or Los Angeles to San Diego, if that money might help win private financing.

The committee, at the urging of Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, restored language that restricted use of the $9.95 billion in bond proceeds to the "spine" of the 800-mile system, which is now slated to run from Anaheim to Los Angeles to San Jose and San Francisco through the Antelope and San Joaquin valleys.

Mehdi Morshed, the bullet train authority's executive director, said the committee's action, if unchecked by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which also must vote on the bill, or the full Senate, could kill the leg going to Sacramento.

The bill's author, Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, reluctantly accepted the committee's changes, which she said she saw for the first time when she walked into the hearing.

One change that caused Republicans to bristle along with representatives of private contractors was one that says the High-Speed Rail Authority "shall utilize" the engineering and project design services of Caltrans, the state's transportation department.

"This is not a close call. There is no question that this violates the (state) Constitution," said attorney Gene Erbin, who represents the American Council of Engineering Companies and has successfully challenged such project provisions in the state Supreme Court.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, the committee's chairman, said the panel would seek advice on the Constitutional question before committing to final language. The change was recommended by the powerful Professional Engineers in California Government, which represents Caltrans engineers.

The bill also requires a new authority business plan by the beginning of October, but Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, noted angrily that many voters will already be casting mail-in ballots on the bond measure by then.

At the start of Tuesday afternoon's meeting, Ashburn cited such concerns in asking the panel to not only reject the bill, but remove the existing five-year-old bond measure from the ballot.

"I do not believe that this bond is ready to go to the people in November," he said, calling the information available to voters on the project's risks insufficient.

His motion failed on a 7-4 vote along party lines.

Despite such concerns, committee Democrats were determined to move the bill forward and have the new ballot language ready for voters this fall.

"The can has been kicked down the road from ballot to ballot to ballot," lamented Sen. Jenny Oropeza, D-Long Beach, referring to the legislature and governor's removal of the bond measure from the 2004 and 2006 ballots in favor of budget bailout and infrastructure bond measures.

She and other bullet train supporters cited the electric train's low air emissions and ability to move millions of passengers from north to south to serve a burgeoning state population.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

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