California ballot initiative seeks to end $77B high speed rail project

- Opponents of the California gas tax increase passed by state legislators last year on Tuesday proposed a new ballot measure for 2020 to provide money for road repairs and eliminate the state's $77 billion high-speed rail project.

The backers of the 2020 measure are also behind Proposition 6, which will ask voters in November if they want to repeal the state's recent gas tax hike, which raised the state gas tax 12 cents per gallon. They contend the state can use existing revenue for transportation projects.

The 2020 initiative would change the state constitution to require that revenue from existing gas taxes be spent only for road and bridge work.

California's Democratic-led legislature passed the increase on fuel taxes and vehicle fees last year. It is expected to raise about $5 billion a year for highway and road improvements and transit programs.

Republicans and Democrats agree the state needs a transportation overhaul but disagree on how to pay for it.

Last year, a Democratic state lawmaker from Orange County was recalled over his support for the fuel tax increase.

Those who support the tax increase contend it's critical to maintain the state's infrastructure. Those who argue for repeal say gasoline has become too expensive and the legislature should find other funding sources to cover the state's transportation needs.

California's high-speed rail project has become politically fraught as costs spike and the project's end date pushes farther back.

Voters approved roughly $10 billion in bonds in 2008 to construct a high-speed train that would take passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours. It was supposed to cost about $40 billion.

Now, the cost has ballooned to an expected $77 billion - with the completion date pushed back to 2033.

Construction is underway in the state's Central Valley agricultural heartland, but the high-speed rail authority does not have enough money to complete the first phase from Bakersfield to San Francisco. As of April, the project had between $20 and $28 billion in hand.

Money for the project comes from the bonds, federal dollars and revenue from the state's cap-and-trade program that requires businesses to buy credits to emit greenhouse gases.

The proposed ballot measure would halt funding for high-speed rail, force the state to cease activities on it and use any unspent bond money to retire the debt. The federal money has already been spent. The initiative does not specify how the cap-and-trade money earmarked for rail would be redirected.

The ambitious proposal is currently California's largest single infrastructure project.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is a staunch supporter, while Republicans largely detest the project.

Some Democrats in the Legislature have grown frustrated by the cost overruns and delays. Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox says he'd kill the project, while Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said he supports it but is concerned about its financing.

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