High Speed Rail On Track, Despite Ruling Says Gov.

California Gov. Jerry Brown maintains the nation's largest infrastructure project will not be derailed.

Fri August 23, 2013 - West Edition
Juliet Williams - ASSOCIATED PRESS

Computer-generated image of the proposed high-speed trains for use in California.
Computer-generated image of the proposed high-speed trains for use in California.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Gov. Jerry Brown said Monday that a judge’s ruling that California’s $68 billion high-speed rail plan has not followed the terms approved by voters will not stop construction of the project, which is among his top priorities.

The ruling raises some questions about the plan, but "it did not stop anything," the Democratic governor told reporters during a Lake Tahoe summit.

"There’s a lot of room for interpretation, and I think the outcome will be positive," Brown said of the ruling late Friday by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny.

The ruling came just hours after the California High-Speed Rail Authority signed a nearly $1 billion contract authorizing a consortium led by Tutor Perini to design and build the first 30 miles of track from Madera to Fresno, rail authority board Chairman Dan Richard said.

Supporters of the project had hoped that milestone would mark a turning point in the project, which has lost public support since voters approved the sale of $10 billion in bonds for it in 2008.

The judge’s ruling on Friday said the authority’s 2011 funding plan broke promises made to voters in Proposition 1A, which said financing and environmental reviews would be in place for the entire first "useable segment" before construction would start on the nation’s largest infrastructure project. The authority has identified funding for the first 130 miles and has completed about 30 miles of environmental review, but the judge said that was needed for the first 290 miles.

Kenny said the rail authority abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with the law, and the Legislature relied on that plan in July 2012 when it approved selling $2.9 billion in state bonds, allowing the state to tap into $3.3 billion in federal funding. Rail officials plan to spend the federal matching money first because of several outstanding lawsuits.

Kenny declined in his ruling to halt funding, saying Proposition 1A appears to leave it up to the "Legislature’s collective judgment" to decide whether the funding plan complied with the ballot measure. The judge has asked lawyers to submit additional briefs regarding a possible remedy before he schedules another hearing.

Michael Brady, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said all work on the rail system should stop.

"They should have read the judge’s decision more carefully because he clearly said they had violated Proposition 1A in two very critical respects," Brady said. "That means they shouldn’t be signing any more construction contracts, taking any land, making any financial commitments."

High-speed rail officials note that much of his ruling hinged on the 2011 business plan, which pegged the total project cost at $98 billion and has since been overhauled to accommodate concerns of residents in the Central Valley and the San Francisco Peninsula.

Richard acknowledged that in the past the rail authority did fail to meet some standards, but he said since Brown appointed him and adviser Mike Rossi to the rail authority aboard, officials have sought to overhaul the project. He said he is confident the current plans would meet the judge’s tests.

"This is a program we want everybody to be proud of, in terms of what we’re doing for environmental protection, the settlements we had with farmers in the Central Valley, how high-speed rail can work to revitalize cities in the Central Valley ... we’re really focused on what this program can do for the state," he said.

Congressional Republicans who have fought to block funding for the project pounced on the judge’s ruling.

"With no private funds, unreliable ridership numbers, and the reliance on hardworking taxpayers to bail out this project, this project should not move forward," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.

Plaintiff Aaron Fukuda, a landowner in Hanford, 35 miles south of Fresno, said the rail authority should not do any more work until Kenny issues a final decision, but he doesn’t expect that to happen.

"Are they going to, in their arrogance? Absolutely. No question in my mind," he said. "The public needs to be aware of just how rogue this agency is."

Unless a judge intervenes to cut off funding, it’s not clear that project could be halted.

Kenny appeared to say in his ruling that the plaintiffs would need to show that the high-speed rail agency has spent more than the 7.5 percent of $10 billion in bonds allowed for planning.

So far, the state has issued $705 million in bonds related to the project, about $400 million directly related to plans for the bullet train and about $305 million for projects to connect existing rail lines to an eventual high-speed system, according to the treasurer’s office.

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