California Bullet Train Up For Contentious Vote

California lawmakers were set to take a crucial vote Friday to determine the fate of an ambitious plan for connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco with the nation's first dedicated high-speed rail line.

The bill backed by Gov. Jerry Brown authorizes building the first stretch in the agriculturally rich Central Valley. It faces a tight vote in the state Senate, with some Democratic senators skeptical that the $68 billion project will ever be completed.

Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is managing the project, said California will lose federal aid -- essentially killing the bullet train -- if the Senate fails to pass the bill Friday.

The bill easily passed the Assembly on Thursday.

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SB1029 would allow the state to begin selling $2.6 billion in voter-approved bonds to finance the first 130 miles of track from Madera to Bakersfield. The federal government has agreed to chip in $3.2 billion for a total of nearly $6 billion to build the initial segment.

California was able to secure more federal aid than expected after Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin turned down money.

Republicans oppose the project, calling it unnecessary spending. The bill needs majority support to pass.

In recent days, Democratic leaders included more funding to improve existing rail systems in an effort to entice support for the bullet train.

The bill now allocates a total of $1.9 billion in bonds for regional rail improvements in Northern and Southern California. The upgrades include electrifying Caltrain, a San Jose-San Francisco commuter line, and improving Metrolink commuter lines in Southern California.

Brown, a Democrat, is pushing for the massive infrastructure project to accommodate expected population growth in the nation's most populous state, which now has 37 million people.

Lawmakers are under pressure from labor groups that say the project is sorely needed to create jobs in a region with higher-than-average unemployment. Critics say the project is too expensive.

A Field Poll showed support for Brown's November proposal to temporarily raise state sales and income taxes could slip considerably if lawmakers approve funding for a bullet train.

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