Lawmakers urge Schwarzenegger to spare money for high-speed rail

Removing the funding from the budget would be damaging, Ma said, in part because the authority has pending contracts for environmental and other studies.

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By Steve Lawrence, Associated Press Writer
San Jose Mercury News

SACRAMENTO--Two Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to stand by his previous statements of support for California's high-speed rail project and spare its funding when he trims $700 million from the new state budget.

"We want to make sure the governor knows we're watching, that Californians are watching, and that we expect the governor to be futuristic, to be optimistic and to keep a project on line that makes a lot of sense in terms of getting people out of their cars," said Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter.

The state's high-speed rail board has recommended that California build a 700-mile system linking its biggest cities with trains running at top speeds of more than 200 mph.

The overdue state budget that lawmakers approved Tuesday includes $20.7 million to continue engineering and environmental work on that project. But Florez and Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, said they were concerned Schwarzenegger might veto the money before he signs the budget into law.

Schwarzenegger promised Republican lawmakers he would use his line-item veto power to cut $700 million to balance the $145 billion budget. A spokesman for the governor's Department of Finance, H.D. Palmer, would not say whether the high-speed rail money would be among the cuts.

"We have never telegraphed in advance what we will or will not veto," Palmer said. "That remains the case today."

Eliminating the high-speed rail funding from this year's budget could undercut efforts to convince voters to approve a $9.9 billion bond measure that is on the November 2008 ballot, Ma and Florez said.

Most of the bond money would be used to help pay for a first leg of the high-speed rail project between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.

Keeping the $20.7 million in the budget would give voters a better idea of what the system would look like and where stops would be instead of asking them to back a "nebulous high-speed rail system," Florez said.

Removing the funding from the budget would be damaging, Ma said, in part because the authority has pending contracts for environmental and other studies.

Mehdi Morshed, the high-speed rail board's executive director, said the $20.7 million would be enough to continue doing some environmental and engineering work on the project, but it would fall far short of the $104.2 million the board requested for the fiscal year that began July 1.

"It keeps us from having to close up shop," Morshed said.

Schwarzenegger had been cool toward the high-speed rail project, which was begun before he took office. But in an op-ed column he wrote in May, he said high-speed rail would be a "tremendous benefit" that would help relieve freeway congestion, improve air quality and create greater mobility.

The budget proposals he made that same month included $5.2 million for the project, far below the amount requested by the authority.

The governor supports high-speed rail but wants the board overseeing the project to do more to line up federal and private funding, said David Crane, Schwarzenegger's special adviser for jobs and economic growth.

"We want to see it done and would like everyone focused on the steps to actually getting it done, not just spending more money on consultants," said Crane, who also is a member of the rail board.

Source: San Jose Mercury News