California High Speed Rail To Critics: Bring It On

03/29/2013 03:51 pm ET
  • Aaron Sankin Assistant San Francisco Editor, The Huffington Post

California's High Speed Rail Authority has thrown down the gauntlet.

The state agency tasked with creating of one of the largest (and most controversial) infrastructure projects in California history has filed suit against anyone planning to stand in its way.

In a lawsuit appropriately titled "High-Speed Rail Authority v. All Persons Interested," the agency claims it will fight back against those who challenge its ability to sell $8.6 billion in bonds to finance a portion of the $69 billion bullet train linking San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The move takes advantage of an obscure California law allowing state agencies to consolidate all potential lawsuits into a single case, after which no one is able to take legal action.

"You might as well do it for the shebang," attorney Stuart Flashman, who has previously filed suit against the project on environmental grounds, told the San Jose Mercury News. "It says you've got the court's stamp of approval...Nobody can come back and say, 'You shouldn't issue these bonds.'"

In a recent editorial, the San Francisco Examiner opined that the lawsuit might present a golden opportunity for opponents. "While some might argue that this move by the authority is an attempt to silence opponents of the project," it read, "the truth is that the legal tactic, which has been used by other municipalities over bond issuances, will give opponents a very specific time window during which they can argue their cases before a judge."

Many of the legal issues that could potentially derail the project's financing go back to the wording of the 2008 ballot measure approving the project in the first place, which originally called for a high speed train that would travel on its own tracks between San Francisco and Los Angeles in under 2 hours and 40 minutes.

In an effort to reduce costs, the agency shifted toward a "blended" approach in which the train would run along the tracks of existing conventional rail lines in regions close to its northern and southern termination points.

Retired judge and former California High Speed Rail chief Quentin Kopp is now a vocal critic of the project, arguing that the blended system is "no longer a genuine high speed rail" and fails to meet the qualifications set forth in the initial bond measure. He claims that under the new approach, overall travel time could end up topping the two hour and 40 minute limit.

The speed issue isn't Kopp's only critique. He also questions what will happen if the state starts building and then funding suddenly dries up. The Los Angles Times reports:

Among the taxpayer safeguards are requirements that construction of the system occur in "usable segments" and that the state have funding in hand to complete each segment before the start of construction. Kopp said he helped craft the provision when he headed the rail authority.

He says the current plan to build 130 miles of rail in the Central Valley for $6 billion, starting this summer, will not produce a usable segment. The first truly feasible segment of passenger service in the state's plan would connect Merced to the San Fernando Valley at an estimated cost of $31 billion, Kopp said. And the state does not have that kind of money in sight. The initial section of track is a "subset of a usable segment" and violates a fundamental mandate intended to protect the state from starting a project it can't complete, Kopp's declaration asserts.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office noted that while the train system's projected ridership and revenue numbers appear to be accurate, the current political climate in Congress isn't particularly amenable to having the federal government pony up the $39 billion necessary to cover the project's current funding gap.

If all goes according to plan, the state hopes to break ground on its first section of track, linking the cities of Fresno and Madera in the San Joaquin Valley, later this year.

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