SACRAMENTO (CBS SF/AP) — A judge has ruled that California’s plans for a $64 billion, high-speed rail system do not violate promises made to voters when they approved state financing for the project.
The ruling released Tuesday by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny allows planning and financing of the project to proceed.
Attorneys who represent Kings County and a group of landowners had argued that the state’s projections on ridership, construction and operating figures are not reliable. They asked the judge to block the state from spending money on the project.
The judge, however, said the 2008 ballot initiative specified only that the state could issue bonds to construct a high-speed rail system and did not prevent modifications to the plan given to voters.
He agreed with the plaintiffs that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has not proven the trains will be financially viable or can meet the travel times voters were promised but said the system continues to evolve so it is premature for the court to intervene.
“The authority may be able to accomplish these objectives at some point in the future. This project is an ongoing, dynamic, changing project,” Kenny wrote.
Dan Richard, chairman of the board that oversees the rail authority, expressed relief at the judge’s ruling. He said “a great myth” has developed that the system being built is different than the one voters approved.
“It’s totally and completely false,” Richard said at the board’s monthly meeting Tuesday. “What we are building is exactly what the public voted for: a fully electric, 200-plus mile per hour train that can operate without a subsidy that is designed to operate in 2 hours and 40 minutes between our great cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco.”
Kenny issued his ruling in a lawsuit filed by a group of Central Valley landowners and Kings County. The legal action argued that plans for the bullet train have strayed far from the promises made to voters, particularly on trip times, ridership and maintenance costs.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Stuart Flashman said he was disappointed in the court’s decision and his clients would be evaluating their next steps.
“Though the high-speed rail authority may have won this round, the ruling … provides ominous signs about the authority’s future use of bond funds,” Flashman said in an email.
He said the court may consider it premature to block the funding but it does not appear that current plans for the bond money would be allowed under the law.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration had pegged the cost of the project at $68 billion but lowered the estimate to $64 billion in February.
Voters were told the nation’s first high-speed trains would whisk travelers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes, and the system would operate without a government subsidy.
It was also pitched as a stand-alone system that would not have to share tracks with other rail lines.
Since then, plans have changed repeatedly as state officials made political compromises to ensure survival. Plans now call for a system that shares tracks with commuter trains in some sections.
Attorneys for the opponents argued that it would now take longer to get passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles. They also said the state’s estimated ridership figures for shorter trips are not reliable, and operation and maintenance costs are likely to exceed projections.
Attorneys for the state countered that decisions have been made in voters’ best interests, including one to go with a system in which high-speed rail would share tracks with commuter trains.
The new business plan released in February by the California High-Speed Rail Authority upended plans for the rail line. The change would send tracks from the Central Valley north to the San Francisco Bay Area instead of south as planned since 2012.
The new plan has yet to be approved by the authority, which oversees the project.
It also calls for a 250-mile segment from San Jose to north of Bakersfield to begin operating by 2025. That would be three years later and 50 miles shorter than the previous plan that called for trains to run from Merced to the San Fernando Valley by 2022.
The shift would allow officials to put off the costly and hotly debated plan to tunnel through the Tehachapi Mountains.