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  • Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press

    Gov. Jerry Brown shows legislation he signed Wednesday approving initial high-speed rail funding. With him at Union Station are Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. left, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles.

  • Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press

    Construction workers join Gov. Jerry Brown and other officials Wednesday in San Francisco as officials touted the state's high-speed rail project as an investment that would bring new jobs.

Jerry Brown signs rail bill, avoids Central Valley opponents

Published: Thursday, Jul. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 19, 2012 - 6:28 am

SAN FRANCISCO – It took the promise of nearly $2 billion in rail upgrades in the Bay Area and Los Angeles for Gov. Jerry Brown to secure the Legislature's support for high-speed rail, so it was there that the Democratic governor celebrated on Wednesday.

Discontent with the project and legal challenges, however, linger in the Central Valley – the site of the first track actually designed for high-speed trains. Had Brown come there, one opponent said, he might have had tomatoes lobbed at him.

"We wouldn't want to waste our specialty crops, like pistachios and almonds, on him," said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, one of several Valley groups suing to block the project.

But in signing the bill authorizing initial funding for the $68 billion project, Brown and his entourage on Wednesday dismissed such mistrust and emphasized the regional and statewide benefits of the plan.

"What this is all about is investing in the future," Brown said in downtown San Francisco, hours after signing the bill in Los Angeles. "I know there are some fearful men – I call them declinists – who want to put their head in a hole and hope reality changes. I don't see it that way. This is a time to invest, to create thousands of jobs."

His signature on the rail bill comes less than two weeks after Brown and the California High-Speed Rail Authority pushed the project through the Legislature by a bare majority, a major victory for the Democratic governor.

The initial, 130-mile segment in the Central Valley is the start of a project that is proposed to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco within 15 years. Planners envision extending the network later to Sacramento and San Diego.

The legislation authorizes $5.8 billion to start construction of a high-speed rail line in the Central Valley, including $2.6 billion in state rail bond funds and $3.2 billion in federal aid. To gain political support for the project in the state's most densely populated areas, the administration also included $1.9 billion in funding to improve urban rail systems and connect them to high-speed rail.

In the Bay Area, officials said more than $700 million in rail funds will be used to improve service on Caltrain, the commuter rail line on the San Francisco Peninsula, by electrifying the system. Another project will connect it to the Transbay Transit Center under construction in San Francisco. That project could be finished by 2019. The bill also provides millions of dollars more to buy new Bay Area Rapid Transit District cars and to upgrade BART and Amtrak lines in the Bay Area, officials said.

Proposed spending in Southern California is similar, with rail money planned to expand Union Station in Los Angeles, where Brown signed the rail bill, and to upgrade Metrolink's Antelope Valley line between Palmdale and the San Fernando Valley, preparing for an eventual tie-in to high-speed rail.

The significance of the legislation, said Don Sepulveda, executive officer of regional rail for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is "not necessarily what high-speed rail does for high-speed rail, but what high-speed rail does for Los Angeles County."

Brown's appearances were coordinated to highlight regional impacts of the rail bill in the state's largest media markets. The high-speed rail project has become unpopular among Californians since voters approved it in 2008, and the administration has tried to refocus attention on improvements in urban areas in part to turn public opinion around.

In San Francisco, Brown and Dan Richard, chairman of the rail authority board, were joined by labor leaders and local officials and flanked by construction workers at the Transbay Transit Center site.

"A year from now, dirt will be flying in the Central Valley," Richard said, "as these fine men and women in the hard hats have opportunities to start building the spine of America's first high-speed rail tracks."

Opposition remains fierce in the Central Valley, however, particularly among farmers concerned about losing cropland. Construction could start by early next year on an initial high-speed rail line between Madera and Bakersfield.

"We'll have our chance to go to the Valley," Brown said. "But we don't want people to forget we have a lot of investment right here in San Francisco and other places along the coast."

The Madera County Farm Bureau, which is seeking to negotiate an alternative alignment for the rail line, is among several groups challenging the adequacy of the project's environmental reviews.

The rail authority released a revised environmental document Monday that included possible alternate routes in the Hanford area, a measure rail officials described in part as a response to local criticism.

The revision is unlikely to appease farmers or officials in Kings County. The county claims in a lawsuit that the project violates the initial intent of voter-approved Proposition 1A because it includes money for regional transportation projects other than high-speed rail.

"The problem is we have no say so," Kings County Supervisor Tony Barba said. "We have no protection on this. It's Sacramento."

The rail authority has said its project is consistent with the measure voters approved in 2008. Meanwhile, Brown has suggested he may again propose legislation to insulate the project from further environmental challenges, after opposition from environmentalists forced him to at least delay such an effort last month.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said high-speed rail will address a major transportation problem for people in the Central Valley, easing travel to and from Los Angeles and San Francisco.

She isn't sure rural areas around her city will come to support the project, but she predicts resistance will subside once rail routes are settled and negotiations with landowners begin in earnest.

"It's the fear of not knowing that's really driven so much of the anxiety," Swearengin said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by David Siders



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