California bullet train cleared for construction, but faces delays

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California will forge ahead with plans to build the nation’s first bullet train by buying land in the Central Valley and demolishing buildings in the path of the $68 billion rail line after the state Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal from opponents of the project.

The California Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday to reject an appeal of a lower court ruling allowing Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature transportation project to proceed was another win for the beleaguered project that has suffered repeated legal setbacks.

Demolition and engineering work has already begun around Fresno, one of the hubs on the first 28-mile stretch of high-speed rail planned for the Central Valley, but the agency is far behind schedule in acquiring all the land needed to actually begin construction, and the state has only found a fraction of the money needed before tracks will be installed.

One of the arguments made by the plaintiffs, Kings County and landowners in the Central Valley, was that the state failed to identify the funding for the first useable segment of the rail line, having only $6 billion of the estimated $26 billion needed for the first 130 miles.

At Brown’s request, the Legislature this year approved the first permanent funding source for the project, setting aside a portion of the annual fees the state collects through carbon taxes, a symbolic move that will deliver more money for rail but not billions a year.

Dan Richard, chairman of the board of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said in a written statement Wednesday that the agency will build a modern system that connects the state, creates jobs and complies with the law.

“We will continue to move forward aggressively to deliver the nation’s first high-speed rail system,” Richard said.

Wednesday’s decision also concerns only one portion of the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. In a second phase still before a Sacramento County judge, attorneys will argue that compromises made to cut the price mean the bullet train won’t be able to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes as promised in the ballot measure.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal agreed with the plaintiffs’ complaint that there are legitimate legal concerns about whether the “high-speed rail project the California High-Speed Rail Authority seeks to build is the project approved by the voters” but said the arguments were brought too soon.

Proposition 1A, approved in 2008, promised voters that the state would identify funding for the first useable segment of the rail line and that it would have necessary environmental clearances done before starting construction. Opponents argue that it has neither.

The court’s decision not to hear the appeal “bodes poorly for all kinds of tax measures that go on the ballot because voters are going to say ‘How do I know they’re going to do this, how can I trust what they say?”’ plaintiffs’ attorney Stuart Flashman said Wednesday.

Rulings by a Sacramento County judge last year prevented the sale of $8.6 billion in voter-approved bonds and created ongoing uncertainty about the project. The judge also ordered the state to draft a new funding plan and seek more environmental clearances, a requirement that was overturned by the appellate court.