Panel keeps prospects of high-speed rail funding alive

The Associated Press
Friday May 18, 2001

SACRAMENTO — A state Senate panel kept California’s high-speed rail project alive Thursday by approving $1 million for environmental studies for the 700-mile system. 

The action by the one of the Senate’s budget subcommittees means money for the environmental reviews is likely to be on the table when lawmakers negotiate a new state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. 

The state’s economic and energy woes have put funding for the project at risk. 

The current budget includes $5 million for the first of three years of environmental studies that will be needed before the state can begin building the $26 billion system. The California High-Speed Rail Authority requested another $14 million for the second year of the studies, but Gov. Gray Davis didn’t include the money in his budget proposals. 

The Assembly’s transportation budget subcommittee didn’t approve any more money for the studies, but its Senate counterpart agreed to add $1 million. 

Assuming the $1 million remains in the Senate’s version of the budget, funding for the studies will be an issue when a two-house conference committee begins budget negotiations later this month or in June. 

Medhi Morshed, the authority’s executive director, said the $1 million by itself wouldn’t do much to further the environmental work. “The best we could do would be to get some of the work to a logical conclusion and preserved for the future,” he said. 

He said he didn’t know how much less than the $14 million he would need to continue the studies on a meaningful level. “A lot of these environmental issues are perishable,” he said. “The work doesn’t have a long shelf life. We’d have to go back and see what we can do that has a longer shelf life and what we can put aside.” 

He said some of the consulting firms that are taking part in the studies may not be willing to continue working at a substantially reduced level. 

“Each contractor has made a commitment of assigning their key people to this project,” Morshed said. “If we’re not going to utilize them then obviously they want to put them somewhere else.” 

The subcommittee chairman, Sen. Byron Sher, D-Stanford, said it would be difficult to find additional state money for the studies but he said high-speed rail supporters plan to try to get some federal funding. The high-speed system would link Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego with trains running at top speeds of 220 mph. Supporters say it will be needed to help relieve highway and air traffic congestion created by rapid population growth in the next few decades.