High Speed Rail Keeps Chugging Along (For Now)

For those who have been reading the papers over the weekend (or better yet, if you were following PCL’s Twitter or Facebook accounts last week), you know that on Friday, the Senate narrowly passed budget bill language that will appropriate nearly $6 billion in funding for the initial construction segment of the nation’s most costly infrastructure project to date: a California High Speed Rail (HSR) system. Until the actual vote came down, nearly three hours after floor session was called, it was unclear if there would be sufficient support to get the bill off the Senate floor and onto the Governor’s desk. In the end, with a strong push from Governor Brown, Senate Pro Tem Steinberg, Congressional officials and perhaps even representatives from the Obama Administration, the measure garnered the minimum 21 votes needed to pass the Senate.

PCL has been tracking California High Speed Rail closely throughout the project’s history, advocating in the legislative and regulatory arenas for a more environmentally and community-friendly project and even, when needed, bringing lawsuits to challenge certain decisions. Because of this long history, we are saddened to report that we have mixed feelings about Friday’s vote.

On one hand, we believe the language of SB 1029 is perhaps the best proposal we’ve seen on HSR legislation to date. The bill included many measures long recommended by the environmental community, including PCL, such as no weakening of CEQA, providing greenhouse gas (GHG) analysis for the project, focusing greater funding on a blended/ bookend approach in the major hubs, and adopting greater accountability mechanisms for the High Speed Rail Authority. This is a testament to the amount of work the Administration, HSRA officials and Legislative leaders have put in to meeting and hearing the concerns of the environmental community over the past year.

Even with all that said, however, serious concerns with project’s viability remain.  Not least of which is that California has only secured $13 billion of guaranteed funds for a project that (according to the most recent business plan) is projected to cost around $68 billion for the first phase alone. This raises the valid question of whether we are on the path to build a train to nowhere. Senator Simitian provided perhaps the best summary of these concerns in his testimony (click here to view).

In the week leading up to the Friday vote, there were murmurs of a possible alternative plan circulated by Senate Democrats who ended up opposing the current measure. Unfortunately, that language was never made available to read or analyze, and the viability of an alternative proposal is uncertain. We will never know if this ‘Plan B’ would have provided even greater oversight and direction to ensure a HSR project that safeguards our communities, agricultural lands and environment.

At a minimum, though, we can say this: the decision to vote this bill off the floor has allowed the project to keep moving forward, which ultimately will leave the dialogue open for greater discussion. It is now incumbent on all of us to maintain an even more watchful eye so that fears associated with the current HSR project are assuaged and the promise of high speed rail is realized. PCL will continue to play a prominent role working to achieve these goals.