The state Senate voted by a bare majority today to fund initial construction of California's $68 billion high-speed rail project.
The approval was uncertain as recently as hours before the vote. With all 15 Republican senators opposed to the measure and several Democratic lawmakers wavering, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg scrambled to muster at least 21 of 25 Democratic votes.
Twenty-one Democratic senators voted 'Yes.'
The approval was a major legislative victory for Gov. Jerry Brown. Steinberg said the Democratic governor "talked to a couple members" ahead of the vote, while Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, reminded colleagues that the project not only had Brown's attention, but also that of President Barack Obama and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
The bill approved by the Senate authorizes $5.8 billion to start construction in the Central Valley, including $2.6 billion in rail bond funds and $3.2 billion from the federal government. Lawmakers tied that funding to nearly $2 billion to improve regional rail systems and connect them to high-speed rail. That regional money was considered necessary to lobby hesitant senators about the project's potential significance to their districts.
"Members, this is a big vote," Steinberg said as he opened floor debate on the bill this afternoon. "In the era of term limits, how many chances do we have to vote for something this important and long-lasting?"
Steinberg and other Democrats said the project would create thousands of jobs and make necessary improvements to the state's transportation infrastructure. Republicans said it is too expensive and relies on uncertain future funding. They criticized starting construction in the sparsely populated Central Valley.
Among Republicans in opposition was Sen. Tony Strickland, who criticized a willingness by the Legislature to reduce spending elsewhere while finding money for high-speed rail.
"I think this is a colossal fiscal train wreck for California," he said.
Sen. Joe Simitian, of Palo Alto, was one of four Democrats to break ranks with his colleagues. Simitian said he supports the vision of high-speed rail, but not the current plan. He said there are "billions of reasons" to oppose it.
Other Democratic senators opposing the measure were Mark DeSaulnier, of Concord, Alan Lowenthal, of Long Beach, and Fran Pavley, of Agoura Hills.