Judge’s Rulings Put California High-Speed Rail Project in Doubt

Published November 26, 2013

A high-speed rail project championed by California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and the Obama administration violated voter-approved safeguards against runaway spending and must draft a new budget and prove there is enough money available to finish the project, according to rulings by California Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny.

Kenny also rejected a request by the state to “validate” the issuance of bonds to fund construction, which could have blocked opponents from future court challenges. But he also rejected a request from rail project opponents to entirely end the project and nullify construction contracts that have been signed.

Kenny’s rulings put the massive high-speed rail project in doubt. Spokesmen for the governor and for the California High-Speed Rail Authority declined comment.

Soaring Project Costs

California voters in 2008 approved $10 billion in bonds for a project they were told would cost $33 billion to run high-speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Rail officials now project a cost of at least $68 billion, and project critics say even that figure is a lowball estimate. Costs would be covered by the state and federal governments. To satisfy the court, the state must show it can come up with another $25 billion to pay for its share of the costs.

“It will be many, many more months before the state can get this thing back in gear, if they ever can,” Michael Brady, a San Francisco attorney who represents opponents, told the San Jose Mercury-News. “The good people of the Central Valley can sleep better tonight knowing their way of life is less threatened.”

In 2012 Gov. Brown signed a bill approving construction of the first leg of the project, a 130-mile stretch from Madera to Bakersfield in California’s Central Valley. Judge Kenny’s ruling allows $3 billion of federal dollars pledged by the Obama administration to be used on this leg of construction but does not allow the use of billions of dollars of state rail bonds until and unless the conditions in his ruling are met. Construction on that leg of the project still has not begun.

Major Change in Plans

In a statement, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association – a California taxpayer watchdog group – noted it and other rail opponents had requested the court deny the issuance of the bonds “on the grounds that the High-Speed Rail Authority’s plans had so deviated from the promises made to voters in Proposition 1A, that bonds for the project had not received voter approval.

“Proposition 1A promised Californians the ability to be able to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in two hours and forty minutes, but the revised system strayed far from what the voters intended. The idea of dedicated track for a high speed system was tossed aside in favor of a ‘blended system’ where high speed trains would compete for track space with commuter and freight lines, which would significantly increase commute time,” the statement continued.

Nearly Double Commute Time Estimates

Earlier in 2013 the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation reported the system’s fastest nonstop trip is likely to take nearly four hours, and most trips on the system would take four hours and 40 minutes or longer.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has already sharply downgraded its ridership estimates for 2035. In 2008 the Authority promised voters 65.5 million to 117 million riders in 2035. Now it predicts 19.6 million to 31.8 million riders in 2035, and the Reason Foundation analysis says even those lower estimates are highly optimistic.