The California High-Speed Rail Authority voted 6-0, with one member absent, to approve its latest plan. Two hours of public comment preceded the vote, most of it favorable toward the bullet train.
"We're 30 years behind the rest of the world. It's time for us to move ahead in our country," rail board member Bob Balgenorth said. "It's time for us to catch up."
Union members touted the project as a way to create much-needed jobs in a state that has battled double-digit unemployment for years. Critics targeted the project's $68.4 billion cost. That amount is $23 billion more than the amount sold to voters when they authorized the project in 2008.
Project opponent Frank Oliveira said the price and other provisions of the authority's updated business plan ran counter to the voter-approved initiative. When $9 billion in bonds were approved, voters were told the total project would cost $45 billion and connect all the state's major cities with trains running at speeds of 220 mph.
To reduce costs, the authority proposes a high-speed line through California's Central Valley then connecting it to existing urban rail lines in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.
"Do the project right, comply with the law, or reconfigure the plan," said Oliveira, who is with the group Citizens for California High-Speed Accountability.
Sacramento, the state capital, and San Diego, a major tourist destination, will not be directly connected to the high-speed rail line as envisioned in the project's initial phase. Even a connection to Anaheim, home of Disneyland, was removed to save money, although board members on Thursday said they hoped to find a way to salvage that connection.
The Legislature has until Aug. 31 to authorize the bond sale that would get the project started. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has championed the project, making it likely that the Democratically controlled Legislature will authorize the first wave of bond sales so construction can start by early next year.
Only a simple majority vote is needed. But nearly all Republicans and even some Democrats have expressed skepticism about the project's scope and affordability, so approval is far from certain.
Republican lawmakers acknowledged there was little they could do to stop the plan if a majority of Democrats favor it, so they are pinning their hopes on a ballot referendum being promoted by a GOP lawmaker and former Republican congressman.
"It has been an idea that gets worse the more information we get about it," Jim Nielsen, the Republican vice chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, said in an interview Thursday.
He hopes voters will get an opportunity to weigh in on the plan and decide whether they want to push ahead, given the soaring price tag.
"It's too important; voters need to have a second word," he said.
Only about $13 billion has been identified for the project so far -- the $9 billion in voter-authorized bonds and about $3.5 billion promised from the federal government. That leaves $55 billion to be funded with uncertain sources of money.
The latest business plan says private investors and industrial fees from California's cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are expected to fill much of the gap.
Earlier this week, a House oversight committee sent a letter to the rail authority, its executives and board members notifying them of an inquiry into whether the state was spending the federal money as it was intended. A committee hearing date on the matter has yet to be scheduled.
Dreier reported from Sacramento.