SACRAMENTO — Dealing a major blow to California’s high-speed rail project, a Sacramento County judge ruled Friday that the agency overseeing the bullet train failed to comply with the financial and environmental promises made to voters when they approved initial funding for the project five years ago.
Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny said the California High-Speed Rail Authority “abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with the requirements of the law” and has failed to identify “sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible.”
Yet he declined to immediately halt funding for the project and said he will hold another hearing to determine what happens next. A date has not yet been set.
The office of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has championed the project, directed inquiries to the California High-Speed Rail Authority. Dan Richard, the Brown-appointed chairman of the authority’s board, said work on the project will continue until the judge determines the remedy.
In the meantime, he said the Legislature’s financial appropriation remains valid. “We take our commitment to Proposition 1A seriously and continue to work towards developing a high-speed rail project that benefits all Californians,” he said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Central Valley landowners and the Kings County Board of Supervisors argued in their 2011 lawsuit that the $68 billion high-speed rail plan did not meet the promises made to voters in 2008, when they approved selling $10 billion in bonds for it.
Proposition 1A required the agency to identify funding for the entire first segment of the project and clear all environmental hurdles before starting construction. The high-speed rail authority had argued that those requirements applied only to the first 130 miles from Madera to Fresno.
Lawmakers last summer authorized selling $2.6 billion in state bonds for construction of that first segment, allowing the state to tap $3.3 billion in federal matching funds. That is just a fraction of the eventual financing needed to link Northern and Southern California by high-speed train.
The judge said the plain language in the initiative indicates that financing and environmental clearances should be completed for the first 290 miles from Merced to the San Fernando Valley, which is estimated to cost anywhere from $24 billion to $31 billion.
“The judge indicated that they really had to have the funding for the entire IOS (initial operating segment) that they picked, and that’s $31 billion,” said Mike Brady, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “They only have $6 billion of the $31 billion, so that’s going to be a pretty big hurdle, I think.”
Aaron Fukuda of Hanford, one of the landowners who also was a plaintiff, said the judge’s ruling was vindication of the concerns raised by regular people.
“To have a judge finally validate those concerns, it’s completely uplifting,” he said.