Judge blocks Calif. high-speed rail funding effort
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny listens to arguments concerning a lawsuit to halt funding for California's high-speed rail on the grounds that the project violated the promises made to voters, in Sacramento County Superior Court, in Sacramento, Calif. In rulings issued Monday, Kenny rejected a request from the California High-Speed Rail Authority to sell $8 billion of the $10 billion in bonds approved by voters in 2008. In a separate suit he also ordered the rail authority to redo its $68 billion funding plan before continuing construction. AP Photo
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A judge on Monday tore up California’s funding plans for what would be the nation’s first bullet train, issuing separate orders that could force the state to spend months or years redrawing its plans for the $68 billion rail line and could choke off some of its funding.
Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny rejected a request from the California High-Speed Rail Authority to sell $8 billion of the $10 billion in bonds approved by voters in 2008, saying there was no evidence it was “necessary and desirable” to start selling the bonds when a committee of state officials met last March.
He said the committee, which included state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, was supposed to act as “the ultimate ‘keeper of the checkbook’” for taxpayers, but instead relied on a request from the high-speed rail authority to start selling bonds as sufficient evidence to proceed.
In a separate lawsuit, Kenny ordered the rail authority to redo its $68 billion funding plan, a process that could take months or years He had previously ruled that the authority abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with the law. The judge said the state failed to identify “sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible.”
It is also unclear who will decide if the new funding plan is sufficient. It will be submitted to the board that oversees the rail line, whose members have been appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a project booster, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Proposition 1A, which voters approved in 2008, required the rail authority to specify the source of the funding for the first operable segment of the high-speed rail line and have all the necessary environmental clearances in place. Kenny had said the agency did not comply with either mandate in approving the start of construction from Madera to Fresno, about 30 miles.
The plaintiffs, a group of Central Valley residents and farmers, believe the requirement applies to the first 300 miles stretching as far as Bakersfield with a projected price tag of $31 billion. But the rail authority contends it applies only to the first “useable” segment of track in the Central Valley.
“The court said, look, you’ve only got 28 miles with completed environmental clearances. I order that you have to have 300 miles of environmental clearances,” said Michael Brady, an attorney for residents who had sued to halt the project. “It’s taken them five years to do 28 miles, so how long will it take them to do 300 miles?”
Still, Kenny stopped short of blocking the project altogether, and rail authority officials characterized Monday’s rulings as a setback rather than a fatal blow.
“Like all transformative projects, we understand that there will be many challenges that will be addressed as we go forward in building the nation’s first high-speed rail system,” rail authority Chairman Dan Richard said in a written statement.
The authority’s CEO, Jeff Morales, disagreed with claims by the opponents that the judge’s rulings would send high-speed rail planners back to the drawing board, saying officials are confident they can address the judge’s concerns quickly. When asked how much time it could take, he said, “Not long. We don’t think that addressing that will have any material effect on the project.”
The rail authority had argued that it has already updated its funding plan and that it intends to spend $3.2 billion in federal money before tapping the state bonds. It also argued that only the Legislature could intervene to stop the project.