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California Assembly Approves High-Speed Rail

The California Assembly has approved legislation authorizing about $4.5 billion in state bond funding for a high-speed rail system backed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Lawmakers approved SB1029 on a 51-27 vote Thursday afternoon, with Republicans opposing it.

The bill would pave the way for California to begin selling $2.6 billion in voter-approved bonds. It allocates another $1.9 billion for regional rail improvements.

If the Senate also approves the same legislation Friday, California could tap $3.2 billion in federal grants to start construction of the first segment in the Central Valley.

Democrats say a bullet train would put California on the cutting edge and bring relief to its strained transportation network. Republicans called it a boondoggle that will further hurt the state's faltering economy.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

State lawmakers on Thursday planned to take up Gov. Jerry Brown's top infrastructure initiative for a California bullet train by considering about $4.5 billion in state financing.

The Assembly was expected to vote on a bill authorizing the first leg of the high-speed rail line that would start in the Central Valley. The measure could face a more contentious vote Friday in the Senate.

If approved, California would begin construction on the nation's first dedicated high-speed rail line. The overall cost of the project from Los Angeles to San Francisco is estimated at $68 billion, but authorities have yet to identify where most of the remaining financing will come from.

The bill would authorize selling $2.6 billion in voter-approved state bonds and allow California to tap $3.2 billion in federal grants. It also would allocate about $1.9 billion for regional transit improvements in Northern and Southern California.

The amounts have been modified as Democratic leaders craft the bill, SB1029, to entice support from as many lawmakers as possible.

In recent days, lawmakers included additional financing to help electrify Caltrain, a San Jose-San Francisco commuter line, and upgrade Metrolink's commuter lines in Southern California.

Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is managing the project, tried to emphasize those projects rather than the massive high-speed rail infrastructure Thursday, as a Field Poll showed that support for Brown's November proposal to temporarily raise state sales and income taxes could slip considerably if lawmakers approve funding for high-speed rail.

"What our new business plan is all about is an integrated rail modernization program for the state," Richard, a Brown appointee, told reporters before the Assembly convened. "It's not just high-speed rail, it's $12 billion of programs that include upgrading Caltrain in the Bay area, replacing BART cars, updating the central subway system in San Francisco, building the regional interconnector in Los Angeles. These are top-priority projects, and this vote is about funding all of those."

The bill authorizes the first 130-mile stretch of high-speed rail from Madera to Bakersfield. Once complete, the bullet train would connect San Francisco with Los Angeles with trains reaching speeds up to 220 mph.

Brown, a Democrat, has said the state needs to build new transportation infrastructure to accommodate a growing population that now stands at 37 million. Richard said if lawmakers do not act this week, they will lose the federal aid, essentially killing high-speed rail in California.

Critics say the project is unnecessary and too expensive, particularly as the state faces ongoing budget deficits. Republicans in the Legislature and Congress oppose the project and some Democratic lawmakers remain skeptical. They have suggested instead using funds to improve existing rail systems in densely populated areas, rather than start construction in the Central Valley.

Richard said the latest proposal already includes funding for those projects.

"If we're going to build a statewide, intercity rail system, we've got to connect the state and that means we're connecting the cities. At some point, that means you're going to be building through the middle of the state," he said.

Lawmakers are under pressure from labor groups that say the project is sorely needed because it will bring jobs, particularly to a region with higher-than-average unemployment. The Obama administration has threatened to rescind federal grants if the Legislature doesn't appropriate California's share of funding in the Central Valley.

The governor is counting on those federal funds and state bonds for a total of roughly $6 billion to build the first segment. California was able to secure more than expected after Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin turned down federal money.

The authority faces a September 2017 federal deadline to finish the first segment of the line.

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