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California Bullet Train In Limbo After Legal Setbacks

SACRAMENTO — Officials overseeing California's $68 billion high-speed rail project have taken pains in recent weeks to assure the public that construction plans are moving ahead, characterizing a series of recent setbacks as "a bump in the road."

That optimism comes despite recent court rulings against the project, creating confusion about the bullet train's prospects.

A Sacramento County judge invalidated the rail authority's business plan, forced it to show how it will pay for the first 300 miles of construction and rejected a request from the authority that would allow the state treasurer to sell $8.6 billion in bonds.

But members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board seemed undaunted during their December meeting. They praised staff for filling key positions at the agency and pointed to a nearly $1 billion construction contract signed in 2013 as evidence of progress.

"They just paint a rosy picture, charge ahead, without acknowledging they have any serious issues to deal with or addressing how they're going to deal with it," said Michael Brady, one of the attorneys representing a group of Kings County residents who sued the state, leading to the judge's rulings.

Challenges also are mounting outside the courts.

Republicans in Congress have vowed to block any further funding for the rail line and will hold a railroad subcommittee hearing in January to investigate the state's spending of $3.3 billion in federal funds that are supposed to be matched by the state.

Rail authority board Chairman Dan Richard has said California has an agreement with federal officials allowing it to spend the federal money first while the state bond money is in limbo. Richard said officials hope to have shovels in the ground in the Central Valley in January or February and projected that the federal money might last through "late spring."

"The state cannot sell bonds in the current legal environment," said Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who sought the so-called validation lawsuit the state filed to seek blanket authority to sell the bonds, which the judge rejected.

What happens next in the legal saga is up in the air, after Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled that the rail plan no longer complies with the promises made to state voters when they approved $10 billion in rail bonds in 2008.

That ballot measure promised that the state would have all the funding in hand for the first useable segment of rail and have all the necessary environmental clearances before construction started. Kenny said it failed to do that.

Rail officials appear poised to deliver a new funding plan to their own high-speed rail board for approval, while the plaintiffs who sued believe the plan needs to go before the state Legislature, which approved a 2012 funding bill that squeaked through the Senate with only one vote to spare.

"I think there was a lot of assumptions by my colleagues when we voted that there was a pretty good chance of getting more federal funds and a pretty good chance of getting private funds, neither of which has materialized," said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, who voted against the 2012 legislation.

DeSaulnier's committee plans a hearing on the project in February.

Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, remains a strong supporter of high-speed rail and has appointed top advisers to the board, including Richard. Democrats also control both houses of the state Legislature and many of them are supportive.

If a new vote is needed, some might be wary of funneling money to a massive project that appears on the ropes, especially in an election year.

"The climate has changed in the last year. You might see people in the Legislature saying, 'We should cut our losses and just move on,'" said Brady, the attorney representing Kings County plaintiffs.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican who has sought to block federal funding for the project, said now is a good time for Brown to reflect on his high-speed rail dream and back out. He said it's becoming clear that "it will not fulfill the promises made to voters."

There is still more legal wrangling, including the second phase of the lawsuit in which plaintiffs have asked the judge to block the state from all high-speed rail spending.

They will argue that the state can no longer fulfill several of the promises made to voters at the time of the bond vote, including sending passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes and operating the trains without public subsidies.

At the same time, supporters are eager to launch construction, which would make it harder to pull the plug. Richard said the worst result of the negative legal decisions has been the public perception that the project is stalled.

"Nothing in those rulings changes our ability to move forward," he said. "We're ready to build this project."

Rod Diridon, a former board chairman who remains supportive and is now executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University, noted that the judge allowed the signed construction contracts to stand, showing that he did not intend to kill the project.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Mmikey'

Mmikey | January 2, 2014 at 9:07 a.m. ― 3 months, 3 weeks ago

put it to a new vote now that the taxpayers have better information on it.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | January 2, 2014 at 10:13 a.m. ― 3 months, 3 weeks ago

Why would they even build the high speed rail? Who the "f" thinks spending 68 billion on this is a good idea? How long will it take to recover the cost of construction with rider fares? 500 years? It is ridiculous. It makes zero economic sense to build the high speed rail.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | January 2, 2014 at 10:15 a.m. ― 3 months, 3 weeks ago

Lets not forget the real reason the high speed rail is being built - Feinstein's husband owns the company that won the contract to build it. No wonder she thinks it is such a great idea!

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Avatar for user 'Derek'

Derek | January 2, 2014 at 12:41 p.m. ― 3 months, 3 weeks ago

JeanMarc, the alternative to spending $68.4 billion on high speed rail is spending $119.0 billion for 4,295 new lane-miles of highway, plus $38.6 billion for 115 new airport gates and 4 new runways, for a total estimated cost of $158 billion, just to move the same number of people.

Therefore, anyone who can do basic math is in favor of high speed rail.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | January 2, 2014 at 12:49 p.m. ― 3 months, 3 weeks ago

America used to think big.

We used to be the global-leader in world class infrastructure.

We aren't any longer.

Today, corrupt politicians and complacent citizens are only interested in short-term gains.

Long range vision and disciplined attention to our long-range future is virtually non-existent.

The tallest building in the world ? I think it's in Dubai.

The lingers bridge? China.

The fastest and most sophisticated trains? Japan.

Sure we have evidence of when we were the greatest country in infrastructure.

The NYC subway system, Hoover Dam and the like.

But what have we built lately ?

As the NYC subway becomes a relic Indian cities are vastly improving their infrastructure with new metro systems.

Within the last several years New Delhi has built a new airport and opened a vast metro network greatly improving mobility in the city.

In San Diego, you can't even ride the little trolley car to mid-city, the airport, or the major tourist areas like Balboa Park.

We have become a nation willing to spend billions upon billions on warfare, building infrastructure in countries we invade, and locking out own people up to the tune of 25% of the worlds prisoners.

Countries need to make decisions, and these decisions lay the framework for our future.

By the time our infrastructure becomes blatantly inferior to the rest of the world, it will be too late to catch-up as we are talking about projects that take decades to complete.

We have chosen to be a nation with lots of prisons and lots of military bases around the world while allowing our internal infrastructure to become sub-par.

Thus will define us in future generations, and not in a good way.

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Avatar for user 'Alex_Grebenshchikov'

Alex_Grebenshchikov | January 2, 2014 at 12:50 p.m. ― 3 months, 3 weeks ago

Derek, are our roads, airports and current rail lines totally maxed out right now? Are we even close to being maxed out? When will we get to the point where we have masses of people that want to get up to San Francisco, but can't because of infrastructure limitations? God forbid we can't zip up to San Francisco on a fashionable (and dare I say "ironic" in the hipster sense) bullet train.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | January 2, 2014 at 12:59 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

By the way, the ghoulish officials in charge of this project are just as responsible for its demise as the opponents are.

Poor communication, shifty planning, waffling back and forth, deciding to cut costs and minimize quality.

When you are talking about doing something big like this, you own it.

You spend the money to go it right, you sell it to the public clearly, you stick to your guns.

All this crap about yeah it will so here, ok maybe there. San Diego will be in the first phase. No it will come later. Ok let's take it out of the route for now.

Done group here complained about the cost, let's cheapen the whole thing.

I mean you stupid idiots: you HAD the public behind you on this.

We like the idea.

We know out nation needs this for our long-range future.

But you went and screwed it all up with you incompetence, and now the public doesn't trust you have the discipline or maturity to get something of this large of a scale done.

Shame on these rancid hacks.

America's days of being the world'd infrastructure leader are gone.

The next generation will need to visit Beijing or Shanghai if they want to see it.

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Avatar for user 'Derek'

Derek | January 2, 2014 at 1:33 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

@Alex_Grebenshchikov "Derek, are our roads, airports and current rail lines totally maxed out right now?"

Take a look at Table 1 in the following document, and notice that maximum lane flow occurs at Level of Service "E" which is a capacity of 2,200 vehicles per lane per hour and a speed of 30-45 mph: http://www.vtpi.org/UMR_critique.pdf#page=3

SANDAG is planning to widen the I-5, but is it running at 30-45 mph 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Is it carrying 52,800 vehicles per lane per day? If not, then it isn't totally maxed out.

I agree that high speed rail doesn't need to be built until the freeways are totally maxed out, at least at Level of Service "C", but it's impossible to achieve any desired Level of Service 24 hours a day without variable express tolls to manage demand.

So if you oppose high speed rail because the alternatives aren't totally maxed out, then are you in favor of tolling all freeway lanes in order to maximize freeway efficiency?

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | January 2, 2014 at 3:09 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Projects like these take 20+ years to come to fruition.

You don't wait until alternatives are "maxed out" and then begin the process.

That's terrible infrastructure planning.

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Avatar for user 'Alex_Grebenshchikov'

Alex_Grebenshchikov | January 2, 2014 at 3:44 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Derek, I would prefer to toll all freeway lanes actually, then I would pay for what I use. But sheesh, you sure know a lot about traffic flow, I have to give you credit! I have never seen a document like that before, quite interesting.

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Avatar for user 'Derek'

Derek | January 2, 2014 at 3:53 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

@Peking_Duck_SD, the fiscally optimal amount of traffic congestion on an unpriced freeway is not zero congestion, it's the amount where the cost of that congestion equals the cost of adding capacity. Therefore, according to marginal costs and marginal revenues, it may well be that it's cheaper overall to allow the freeways to reach maximum capacity before we begin the process of adding capacity.

@Alex_Grebenshchikov, thanks, I found that document just the other day.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | January 2, 2014 at 5:13 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

Derek, the thing about voters is that they "claim" they want a lean government working at fiscally optimal conditions as the algorithms suggest, until they are inconvenienced personally.

Once you get LA-esque snarls in traffic, people begin to lose their sanity and actually want government to spend money. And time is money, sitting on clogged freeways can even begin to impact local businesses as it takes people longer to commute, etc., so there are peripheral fiscal considerations beyond utilizing roads until they are maxed-out.

I'm not trying to pretend I know as much about the details of this particular issue as you do, because I don't.

I'm just trying to make a broader point that it seems like getting major infrastructure projects off the ground today seems a lot more difficult than it was earlier in the last century in this country.

And locally, it's even worse.

I think this will eventually catch-up with us as other countries like China invest way more in infrastructure than we do.

SD is a little backwards in the way we do big things - we literally wait until negative impact is already occurring for things.

I mean it took how many decades for a new library?

We rejected a new city hall even though it would have SAVED MONEY long term.

And we'll probably have to have major headaches and backup at the airport before it's ever moved.

I thought HSR might go smoother since it's a state-wide project, but no dice.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | January 3, 2014 at 8:35 a.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

There are other major shifts coming in technology and culture. Two options to alleviate traffic congestion are wider roads and public transportation... another is telecommuting. It isn't mainstream yet, but in 20 years it may very well be a good alternative to driving to work every day for quite a lot of people.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | January 3, 2014 at 9:22 a.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

We should let Elon Musk build the hyberloop instead.

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Avatar for user 'sunseasurf'

sunseasurf | January 3, 2014 at 3:15 p.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

high speed road..with a breathalyzer/tweaker/withdrawal jenga block checkpoint, pay membership, required high speed driving training and medical certification, and no max speed

an initial test section SF to Bakersfield, Bakersfield to Barstow to LA and Vegas

120-150 mph keeps you much more awake and active as a driver than 70 mph on cruise control

closing speed on a two lane undivided rural road is up to 150 mph now with two vehicles going 75 in either direction... I see no safety issue whatsoever with modern vehicles, airbags, electronic suspension, run flat tires

the jenga block check point is key though.. either that or a tongue fasciculation testing device...the tongue does not lie...

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | January 6, 2014 at 8:29 a.m. ― 3 months, 2 weeks ago

sunseasurf now that is an idea I like! Autobahn USA!

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Avatar for user 'magnumforc'

magnumforc | April 12, 2014 at 9:25 p.m. ― 1 week, 3 days ago

The key is that the High Speed Rail is a Train to Nowhere. It starts where nobody wants to be and in segmentation goes to where nobody wants to go. It will never be anywhere self-sufficient in operating funds, never reach the promised speeds, never be built on budget, will never move the number of people proposed, will be outstripped by new technology long before the wheels turn and will be held up by lawsuit after lawsuit. And, will likely have the Federal Funds pulled before long as the Feds cut to the bone in their own pseudo reductions.

The entire plan is idiotic, based on lack of consideration for taxpayer money and political manipulation, as is usual in California.

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