July 7 (Bloomberg) -- California lawmakers approved funding the first leg of a $68 billion high-speed passenger rail line down the spine of the most populous U.S. state, even as polls show waning public support.
Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat who backs the plan to link San Francisco and Los Angeles, praised the Senate’s “bold” vote yesterday. The measure, passed by the Assembly July 5, won no Republican support. The bill to fund the line frees the state to sell $2.6 billion of bonds already approved by voters. The project is slated for $3.3 billion in U.S. matching funds.
“Ten, 20 and 30 years from now, Californians then will be glad that we made this decision today,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, said yesterday before the 21-16 Senate vote. Democrats hold 25 seats.
California is the only U.S. state working to lay tracks for trains running as fast as 220 miles (354 kilometers) an hour, after Congress cut off 2012 funds for such projects. The plan has been criticized for its cost, choice of routes and timing, as recent deficits have meant deep cuts to schools and the poor.
While 53 percent of voters approved borrowing for the project in 2008, 59 percent would oppose the plan if presented with the choice again, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll last month. A Field Poll released July 5 said that a third of likely voters would be less inclined to support Brown’s proposed tax increases if lawmakers passed the rail funding.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority in April chopped $30 billion off a price tag that had ballooned to $98.5 billion for the system. When voters approved selling bonds for the project, the cost was estimated at $43 billion.
“This is absolutely nuts,” Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from San Bernardino, said July 5. “We’re going to build a train we don’t need, with money we don’t have. I can’t believe we are even having this conversation.”
If Brown signs the funding bill, the state can start construction on the first 130-mile stretch down California’s Central Valley. The initial route, connecting some of the least-populated parts of the state, has fed opposition to the effort.
The tracks are to run from Merced, about 120 miles south of Sacramento, the capital, to the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles, the state’s biggest city. To connect to that population center with San Francisco, the bill authorizes $2 billion of bond funds to upgrade existing commuter and freight lines to handle high-speed traffic.
California is already the most indebted U.S. state, with $73.2 billion of general-obligation bonds outstanding and the authority to sell another $33.1 billion.
The high-speed rail debt won’t be sold as a separate offering. Instead, it’s to be part of multiple general-obligation bond issues from which the proceeds are used for various purposes such as schools, roads and bridges.
An initiative on the November ballot, sponsored by Brown and a teacher’s union, will ask voters to temporarily raise the state sales tax, already the highest in the U.S., to 7.5 percent from 7.25 percent, and to boost taxes on income starting at $250,000. The rate for those making $1 million or more annually, now 10.3 percent, would rise to 13.3 percent.
If the tax increases fail, that will trigger $6.1 billion of cuts -- $5.5 billion coming from schools, enough to pay for three weeks of classes.
A California bond maturing in February 2022 traded June 28 at an average yield of almost 2.7 percent, or about 0.73 percentage point more than an index of top-rated muni debt with a similar maturity, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The securities were issued in March at a yield of 2.78 percent, or 0.88 percentage point above the benchmark.
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