Hours before a critical vote today on California's high-speed rail project, Democratic legislative leaders weren't certain they could line up enough Senate votes to approve it.
They were working on the members one by one. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's office distributed a chart demonstrating the potential value of the project to various senators, including miles of track and funding for other, regional transportation projects in their districts.
Rail officials said Thursday that if the funding measure fails, the $68 billion project is effectively dead.
"This is the time when California decides, 'Do we want to move forward with this rail modernization or don't we?' " Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board, told reporters at the Capitol.
The state Assembly on Thursday voted to approve initial funding for the project, setting up the Senate vote today.
With no Republican senator expected to support the measure, it will require the votes of 21 of 25 Senate Democrats.
"This is a very tight and tough vote," said Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "But I've had tight and tough votes before."
Critics were preparing for today's vote, too. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association urged members to call three Democratic lawmakers it believed could be persuaded: Michael Rubio of East Bakersfield, Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills and Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino.
"Your involvement is critical to killing this boondoggle program," the Jarvis group said.
The bill reaching the Senate today includes $5.8 billion for construction in the Central Valley $2.6 billion in rail bond funds and $3.2 billion from the federal government. It ties that funding to nearly $2 billion in funds to improve regional rail systems and to connect them to high-speed rail.
Rail advocates have used the promise of regional investment in Los Angeles and San Francisco area districts to lobby senators for support.
"I think the one thing that is most important to emphasize is that while over the last couple of years people have really talked about this as the high-speed rail program, the fact of the matter is that what our new business plan is all about is an integrated rail modernization program for the state," Richard said. "It's not just high-speed rail."
Senators are interested in such district-specific benefits. Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said she remains undecided about the project, citing concern that the proposal doesn't do anything to help her North Coast constituents.
Rod Wright was among the Democratic senators leaning toward approval.
"At this point we've got so much in, I'm not sure it's time to cut things or to give back the federal money," he said.
Wright said some parts of the rail plan are "goofy," such as the requirement to start construction in the Central Valley.
But he said that wasn't enough to dissuade him from voting to move forward.
"If I wanted to vote against everything around here that has goofy provisions in it, I'd probably vote against everything," he said.
The Assembly's approval, on a 51-27 vote, was widely expected.
Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, urged lawmakers to recall the work of previous generations that built the state water project and its highway and university systems.
"We have issues, in terms of budget problems," he said. "Does that mean that we stop looking to the future?"
Republicans argued the state does not have money to invest in rail, and they said the prospect of future federal funding is uncertain.
Citing recent polling showing high-speed rail has become unpopular since voters approved it in 2008, Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, urged the Assembly to put the project back to a public vote.
"Let them help us prioritize what's important," Hagman said.
While Assembly members made floor speeches about the project, senators in a committee meeting continued to raise questions about the project's management and cost.
Richard, who met with senators Thursday, declined to say whether he believed the project has the votes to proceed.
"I don't make those predictions," Richard said. "I'm not a member of the Legislature, and the thing that I've found is that people who make those predictions are either presumptuous or stupid. So I'm going to decline to be either."
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in May urged a vote before the Legislature's summer recess.
"If the Legislature doesn't move forward with the project this week, then the secretary of transportation has made it very clear that they need to look at withdrawing the money from California and putting it some place else," Richard said.
"Without that federal match, we're not going to be able to go forward."