Labor leaders, business leaders and scores of construction workers turned out in large numbers to voice support for high-speed rail at a meeting in Palo Alto Tuesday.

There was standing room only for hundreds of union members, local politicians and residents in Palo Alto City Hall, where Assemblyman Rich Gordon hosted the hearing and public discussion as chairman of the state Assembly’s Budget Subcommittee on Resources and Transportation.

Gordon called the meeting to give High Speed Rail Authority board members and the public an opportunity to weigh in on the project, which he said could be “the largest public works project in California in our lifetimes,” and the first high-speed system built in the U.S.

If approved, the project is expected to create more than 600,000 full-time jobs in the construction industry, which has been hit hard by the economic downturn, Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman said.

“I believe that high-speed rail is an absolute necessity for California,” Wunderman said.

Dozens of workers wearing bright orange shirts from the Laborer’s International Union filled the audience, carrying signs that read “High Speed Rail = Jobs” and “High Speed Rail: We Can’t Afford Not To.”

High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Roelof Van Ark said that the high-speed system could be built in phases and paid for with a combination of federal funds, private investment and money from the voter-approved Proposition 1A.

Construction could begin in the fall of 2012 on a 130-mile “initial construction section” in the Central Valley, which would cost about $20 billion, Van Ark said.

“The figures we have in California are compared to other countries with high-speed rail,” he said.

On Nov. 1, the High Speed Rail Authority issued an updated business plan, which more than doubled the projected cost of the 20-year construction project from $43 billion to $98.5 billion.

The updated figures included building costs, operating costs and 3 percent inflation over the life of the project, which is projected to be finished by 2033, member Dan Richard said.

Assemblyman David Valadao, R-Hanford, who has been a vocal opponent of high-speed rail, challenged the High Speed Rail Authority’s calculations, and said the economic climate in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. brought into question future commitments to fund the project.

“Do you really expect us to believe we’re going to get $50 billion?” Valadao asked rhetorically.

No official action was taken at today’s meeting.

The subcommittee plans to convene additional hearings to provide information, gather data and public input and move forward, Gordon said.

“Today we take an important first step in making decisions about high-speed rail,” he said.

Chris Cooney, Bay City News

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