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High-Speed Rail Plan Hinges On Voter Promises

An artist's rendering of the high-speed rail.
California High-Speed Rail Authority
An artist's rendering of the high-speed rail.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- California's high-speed rail authority is breaking the promises made to voters when they approved $10 billion in bonds to build the nation's first bullet train line, attorneys who represent Central Valley landowners argued Friday.

Proposition 1A, the ballot initiative voters approved in 2008, required the California High-Speed Rail Authority to identify funding for the entire first segment of the now-$68 billion rail plan and clear all environmental hurdles before starting construction.

The agency, however, has failed to do both, attorney Stuart Flashman told a Sacramento County judge.


"They were promising that this is how it's going to be handled," he said. "If they didn't want the voters to be able to rely on it, they shouldn't have put it on the ballot."

Flashman argued on behalf of farmers, landowners and the Kings County Board of Supervisors, who filed suit in 2011 seeking to prevent the rail authority from spending any more bond money on construction.

Lawmakers approved the first phase of the planned 800-mile line in 2012, allowing the state to begin selling $2.6 billion in bonds for construction of the first 130-mile stretch and permitting the state to tap $3.3 billion in federal matching funds.

It's just a fraction of the money that will eventually be needed to link Northern and Southern California with a high-speed train.

The legal arguments on Friday hinged on whether the funding plan given to the Legislature was sufficient to meet the criteria spelled out in Proposition 1A.


Deputy Attorney General Michele Inan, representing the rail authority, said Proposition 1A's requirements apply only to assurances the agency had to give the Legislature, not voters.

In approving the line last year, lawmakers decided "that the identification of known and future sources of funding was sufficient for the state to take the risk to invest an initial sum of money on construction," Inan argued.

"The Legislature assessed that it was deficient. The Legislature looked at it and said, we would like more, but this is what we've got and it made its decision. Those are political decisions that I can't comment on," she said.

The move met the agency's legal requirement under Proposition 1A, she told Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenney.

He has 90 days to issue a decision, after which there could be further arguments about whether the authority has complied with the initiative.

Rail officials on Friday appeared to push back the start of construction for the first 30-mile segment from Madera to Fresno from July to late summer. Authority general counsel Tom Fellenz declined to be more specific when asked about it outside court.

Officials have said they intend to first spend $3.3 billion in federal money before tapping the bonds. The federal money, part of President Barack Obama's stimulus package, is contingent upon California completing the first phase of the project by 2017, requiring what officials say would be an unprecedented construction pace.

Public support for the plan has dwindled since 2008 as the project's expected costs have soared and the state's finances became weaker.

The language about financing and environmental review was included in the ballot initiative to assure taxpayers they would not end up with a useless stretch of track in the Central Valley if the rest of the funding never came through, Flashman argued Friday.

Inan said that was not a concern since conventional trains will be able to operate on the first section of track, prompting Flashman to remind the judge that voters did not approve $10 billion in bonds to expand Amtrak.