The California High-Speed Rail Authority board voted unanimously Thursday to seek the Legislature's permission to use $2.7 billion in state bond money to help start construction of the planned $98.5-billion train system.
The 6-0 vote came after more than two hours of public testimony in Sacramento from dozens of critics of the troubled plan, which would connect Anaheim and San Francisco with 220-mph bullet trains. The board voted without discussion.
The Rail Authority needs the state funds to qualify for $3.3 billion in federal stimulus money that can't be spent unless most of it is matched. The plan is to start construction in mid-to-late 2012 in the Central Valley.
The rail authority made public a new business plan this week that shows the total cost has escalated to $98.5 billion from $43 billion. Democrats in the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown are backing the project while Republicans in the Legislature and the House of Representatives oppose it.
The hearing drew critics who claimed to come from both sides of the aisle and all corners of the state, although most were from the Central Valley where most of the system's impact would be felt.
Speakers voiced opposition to funding such a program at a time when the state is making historic cuts to education and other state programs. They also said they mistrusted the rail authority's estimates of the number and types of jobs the project would create and lashed out at rail authority contractors for not establishing a working relationship with local officials and residents of the Central Valley.
"Go back to Governor Brown and let him know this is a mistake and we need to back out of this before any more money is spent," said Cynthia Ward of Anaheim.
The initial 130 miles of rail is proposed to run north of Bakersfield to north of Fresno. Opponents have called that route the "train to nowhere," but supporters argued it will get the project underway and more tracks will be added as money becomes available.
However, the Kings County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to oppose any high-speed rail through the county because of the damage it would cause to local farms and dairies. They also cited the Rail Authority's failure to work with local officials on planning.
Roelof van Ark, High-Speed Rail Authority CEO, insisted that the plan presented Thursday "is not at all the same" as the rail authority's 2009 business plan, which was strongly criticized by state oversight groups.
He also said the rail plan will generate jobs. The report, however, doesn't specify how many of the jobs are full-time or whether the rail system will take jobs from airline and other transportation industries.
Nadia Naik, a cofounder of the Northern California watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, warned the rail authority board that its plan to build even in smaller segments might violate state law.
The law, she said, "anticipated building in segments but set requirements in the law to ensure that when you start a segment, you have all environmental clearances and the money to complete it.
"The legislators didn't just want an initial construction segment. They wanted a usable segment and made a funding plan for such a segment a requirement before construction dollars would be made available for even one mile of track."
— TRACY WOOD