Lawmakers Approve California High-Speed Rail

In California, the state Senate authorized $8 billion to begin funding the first section of an ambitious high speed rail project. Robert Siegel talks to Chris Megerian.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In California, high-speed rail is poised to take a big step. Late today, the state Senate authorized $8 billion to begin funding the first section of the ambitious project. It's a victory for Democratic governor Jerry Brown and also for the Obama administration. Joining me now is Chris Megerian. He is Capitol reporter for the Los Angeles Times. And, Chris, what is it exactly that lawmakers there in Sacramento have approved today?

CHRIS MEGERIAN: Well, it was a squeaker of a vote. And the state Senate approved $8 billion and about $6 billion of that is for 130 miles of track in the Central Valley. This is the first segment of the high-speed rail project. And then there's another $2 billion for local rail projects that are connected to that.

SIEGEL: Now, you said it was a squeaker of a vote. I gather with lots of arm twisting from big figures. Tell us about that.

MEGERIAN: Yeah. There was a lot of controversy over the plan. Some Democrats from metro areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco did not like the idea to start in the Central Valley. And Governor Brown leaned heavily on senators to support the plan. Nancy Pelosi started calling representatives. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also pushed the plan as well.

SIEGEL: Now, this is being called a victory for the Obama administration. How so?

MEGERIAN: Well, one of the Obama administration's goals is to promote high-speed rail, but they ran into a lot of problems around the country. Plans in Florida, in Ohio, in Wisconsin never took off partly due to opposition from Republican governors there. California will be the first in the nation dedicated to high-speed rail project. And they're really pushing that very hard, and there's a lot of resources and political influence here.

SIEGEL: So what happens next for high-speed rail in California?

MEGERIAN: Well, the first step is the governor has to sign a bill passed by the Senate, and he is expected to do that. However, there's also more hurdles. There's a lot of funding that has not been secured yet to finish this project. Eventually, it's supposed to stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles. But we're only talking about a short stretch where funding isn't set aside so far. So they're really counting on the federal government coming through with tens of billions dollars more down the line.

SIEGEL: Chris, we're talking about a state that is historically synonymous with the automobile and with highways. Do people actually foresee sometime in the future lots of travel north to south in California via train?

MEGERIAN: Well, that's what they're hoping. They're hoping to change people's expectations on how to get around the state. Right now, people are much more likely to hop on a short southwest flight from Los Angeles to Sacramento or San Francisco than even think about hopping on Amtrak. They're hoping that this provides another alternative to hopping on one of California's increasingly aging highways.

SIEGEL: And high-speed rail is a term of art. How fast is high-speed rail going to be in California?

MEGERIAN: It could go up to 220 miles per hour, which is faster than, I believe, Amtrak at its fastest. The Acela goes about 150 miles per hour. It wouldn't go 220 miles per hour all the time, but that's the top speed that will be expected.

SIEGEL: And again, the plan approved today in the California state Senate. Chris, thanks a lot.

MEGERIAN: Sure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Chris Megerian, Capitol reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He's been talking with us from Sacramento where lawmakers today approved the first funding for a much anticipated high-speed rail project.

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