Brown's cap and trade cash for bullet train gets first Capitol hearing

In the first legislative hearing for Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to earmark hundreds of millions of dollars for the beleaguered bullet train -- money both now and for years to come -- you could call the reactions ranging from happy to ecstatic.

Yes, that means just about everyone seemed to think it's a good idea.

Wednesday's hearing of the Assembly's budget subcommittee on resources offered the first comprehensive glimpse of Brown's plans to spend some $850 million the state has received from the sale of greenhouse gas emission credits through its cap-and-trade auction program. Those auctions, the marquee attraction of California's 2006 climate change law, could generate billions of dollars more in years to come.

And in each of those years, the Brown administration thinks the cash should help build the nation's first high speed rail system -- a project where money has been the ever-present hurdle.

"One of the things this project has lacked ever since voters approved it in 2008 is the ongoing commitment of revenue," state transportation secretary Brian Kelly said in the Assembly subcommittee hearing. "And this is a proposal to do that."

The governor is calling for a $250 million infusion for the bullet train this year from the cap and trade auction proceeds -- about 29 percent of the existing pot of money -- and about 33 percent of all revenue from the auctions in years to come. The money would presumably continue to flow even if legal restrictions are removed on the sale of the voter-approved 2008 high speed rail bonds.

Actual critics of the proposal were hard to find in Wednesday's hearing; the two Republicans on the subcommittee, who earlier have opposed the plan, skipped the meeting altogether.

Instead, there were varying degrees of questions -- some wanting more ways to measure the actual impact of greenhouse gas reductions from the train allocation and other projects, others suggesting the state needs to invest more of the cap and trade auction credits into efforts that will help Californians from lower income levels. That included calls for more subsidies to public transit.

"Increasing that ridership will, of course, also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions," said Bill Magavern of the Coalition for Clean Air, in the effort to offer an alternative for driving cars to work. "We need more funding for transit operations."

The governor's plan calls for the cap and trade profits for high speed rail to be focused on buying the land needed and to help finance the first construction segment from near Madera south to Bakersfield. Last month, the independent Legislative Analyst's Office raised the concern that the 2006 law mandates greenhouse gas reduction measures by 2020 -- and yet, the bullet train project will likely produce fewer emissions after that deadline, not before.

But the chair of the state's Air Resources Board, the agency tasked with implementing the climate change law, pointed out that the goals should be to fund projects that both reduce greenhouse gases and serve other important needs, especially if they are needs that couldn't be met otherwise. And many, no doubt the governor, would say that high speed rail is just such a project.

"Those are still investments that would be worthy of putting in the [auction profit spending] plan," said resources board chair Mary Nichols.


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