High-speed rail bill races past first hurdle

By Steve Lawrence, The Associated Press
Wednesday May 08, 2002

SACRAMENTO — A bond measure to begin construction of a 700-mile high-speed rail system linking California’s major cities easily passed its first test Tuesday, but the plan faces bigger obstacles down the road. 

The proposal by Sen. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, was approved 8-1 by the Senate Transportation Committee despite claims by one critic that it would “suck taxpayers into a boondoggle of mind-boggling proportions.” 

Supporters countered that high-speed rail has worked well in Europe and Japan and will be badly needed in California if, as predicted, the state’s population explodes over the next several decades. 

“I applaud this effort,” said Sen. Jack Scott, D-Altadena. “I think it’s the wave of the future.” 

The system would link the Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento areas with trains running at top speeds of more than 200 mph. 

Costa’s proposal, if approved by lawmakers, the governor and voters, would allow the state to borrow money by selling bonds to help pay for the first leg of the system, between Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

Costa hasn’t yet amended the measure to specify the amount of bonds that could be sold, but he and other supporters have described it as a $6 billion plan that would pay for construction of about half of the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line. 

Proponents expect the rest of the money to come from the federal government and possibly private sources. Revenue from the first link would pay for extensions to San Diego and Sacramento, they predict. 

“If you look at examples in Europe and Japan, they never built all of their systems at once,” Costa said. “You never have the financial wherewithal to build it all at once.” 

Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Northridge, contended the plan would lead taxpayers into a “boondoggle of mind-boggling proportions,” saying the money would be better spent on building more freeways. 

But Scott said the trains would be safer, more convenient and less polluting than airplanes or cars for long-distance travel. 

He said it would be quicker to travel between Sacramento and his Los Angeles-area district by high-speed rail than to fly, counting the time required to get in and out of airports. 

Costa’s legislation could face tougher tests down the road. 

The bill only needed a simple majority to get out of the 15-member Transportation Committee, but it will have to get two-thirds votes to pass the full Senate and Assembly. That means it will need some Republican support, which may be difficult to muster. 

There is also concern at the Capitol that lawmakers have already put more than $15 billion in bond measures on this November’s ballot and that it might be better to delay the high-speed rail proposal until 2004.