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Calif. high-speed rail faces crucial court ruling

  • Article by: JULIET WILLIAMS
  • Associated Press
  • November 16, 2012 - 2:35 AM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - California's plan to begin building its $68 billion high-speed rail system in the Central Valley hinges on a crucial court decision that could stop the project in its tracks if a judge agrees to a request for a delay from farming interests.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley is expected to decide Friday whether to grant a preliminary injunction that would temporarily halt the ambitious infrastructure project. That would prevent the state's rail authority from buying land along the proposed route and continuing with site surveys, engineering design work and geological testing that began months ago.

Groups representing Central Valley farmers claim in lawsuits that the state agency overseeing the project, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, failed to conduct the thorough environmental reviews required by California law and comply with public meeting laws. They are asking the judge to halt all work until their claims can be heard at trial.

They argue that the state should not spend millions of dollars working on a "massive and largely unfunded project."

Meanwhile, the rail authority has already surveyed more than 300 parcels of land along the proposed route since Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation giving his approval in July.

The preliminary injunction the farm groups and other opponents are seeking would effectively stop the authority from spending any more money on a 65-mile section from Merced to Fresno where construction is scheduled to begin next July. The rail authority says stopping the preliminary work could imperil $2.3 billion in federal grant money that must be spent by 2017 — one of the only definitive funding sources to date.

Lawmakers approved the first phase of the planned 800-mile line this summer, allowing the state to begin selling $2.6 billion in bonds for construction of the first 130-mile stretch of the bullet train in the Central Valley. That approval also allowed the state to tap $3.2 billion from the federal government.

The rail authority argues against any delay in its construction schedule.

"The large scope of the project and the short time frame in which to complete (it) requires construction work at an unprecedented pace — the fastest rate of transportation construction known in U.S. history, at least 50 percent faster than the pace (approximated by dollars spent per day) of the recent Bay Bridge project," John Popoff, deputy program director for the Northern California portion of the project, wrote in a brief filed with the court.

California High-Speed Rail Authority Chief Executive Officer Jeff Morales said some aspects of the overall rail plan would go ahead, even if the court ruling does not go its way.

"While an injunction would hinder our ability to begin construction in the Central Valley in a timely manner, other aspects of the program — such as investment into existing regional transit that will tie into the high speed rail line — will go forward as planned," he said in a written statement to The Associated Press.

Voters approved issuing $10 billion in bonds for the project in 2008, but public support for the plan has dwindled in recent years as the project's expected costs have soared. The most recent estimate is at least $68 billion for the completed project linking Northern and Southern California.

In one of their court filings, opponents say rail officials are spending furiously because they hope "to become so financially committed to the currently conceived section alignment that it will be unthinkable to later choose another course."

© 2014 Star Tribune