A Southern California legislator has introduced a bill that will effectively kill high-speed rail in the state that has garnered the early support of some local officials here on the Peninsula.
Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, introduced Assembly Bill 1455 Friday. The bill halts state debt funding for the high-speed rail project outright.
"It’s about time,” Burlingame Mayor Jerry Deal said yesterday. "It’s not just bad for Burlingame, it is bad for the whole state.”
Gov. Jerry Brown has pledged support for the high-speed rail project but Harkey thinks the state would be better served if the governor diverts $3.9 billion in federal stimulus money toward transportation projects that are truly shovel ready, rather than starting the high-speed rail project in the Central Valley, where there are no riders to support the system.
The Legislature can repeal the portion of bond debt that is not outstanding or contracted under Article XVI of the state Constitution, Harkey said.
While local officials such as Deal and Belmont Mayor Dave Warden think Harkey is headed in the right direction, she might have a harder time convincing her colleagues in Sacramento that it is time to kill the project considering all the federal money expected to support it and the jobs it will create.
Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, for instance, does not intend to support Harkey’s bill although he has been critical of the California High-Speed Rail Authority for its past failings related to ridership and cost estimates.
"It forces us to say no. I don’t see a need for it,” Hill said about AB 1455.
The Legislature can vote for or against Brown’s proposal to issue $2.6 billion in state bonds later this year to get the project under way in the Central Valley, Hill said.
"We need that flexibility,” Hill said. "The time may come in a year or so when conditions improve and the project is easier to support. Harkey’s bill prevents that.”
State voters approved the project by passing Proposition 1A in 2008, which commits about $9.5 billion in bond proceeds to build a high-speed rail system from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
But Harkey told the Daily Journal yesterday that voters were given "too little” information about the project when approving the bond measure.
"In this case, the voters were clearly deceived,” Harkey said.
The cost estimate alone has ballooned from about $36 billion in 2008 when the bond was passed to $98 billion in the most recent draft business plan released by the rail authority.
"Do we really need all this debt now considering the deficit,” Harkey said.
The state has a $35 billion structural deficit, she said, and cannot afford to add to it.
"It is not workable. Digging a huge ditch in the Central Valley that may never be completed does not make sense,” she said.
She does not fault Brown, however, in his efforts to secure federal funding for the project.
"He is under a lot of pressure from the unions and the jobs it will create to support this project. What he could do is pressure the Obama administration in giving the state more flexibility on how it can spend the stimulus money,” she said.
Harkey said the state needs to "forget about the fed funds” without that flexibility.
"They said they could build a system that would not need subsidies from the state but that won’t happen,” Harkey said.
Locally, the councils in Belmont and Burlingame are ready to ask the state to kill the project altogether and even disband the rail authority.
The Belmont City Council is expected tonight to approve a response letter from the mayor related to the rail authority’s most recent draft business plan that put the cost estimate for the project at the $98 billion mark.
"We urge you to deny release of bond funds for the project, to cancel all funding, and to disband the authority,” according to the letter written by Mayor Warden.
In Burlingame, officials want state legislators to either draft legislation to stop high-speed rail or support a state-wide ballot measure that will allow voters to stop it.
Burlingame’s mayor also sits on the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain.
"I want to see Caltrain survive but high-speed rail might kill it,” Deal told the Daily Journal yesterday.
Deal said the state should end the project "now.”
"Why wait another year and spend untold millions on consultants when the basic plan is flawed,” Deal said.
Caltrain and the rail authority have an understanding to share the tracks once they are electrified.
Bill Silverfarb can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.