Our View: Rail ruling is a setback, not a golden spike

November 26, 2013 

A small group of individuals determined to stop California’s high-speed rail project tried to convince Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael P. Kenny that “it would be illegal to proceed with construction of the high-speed rail project.” Kenny wasn’t buying.

They wanted the judge to “preclude the use of any of the $9 billion” in voter-approved Proposition 1A bonds for the project and to stop “any effort … to commence construction.” Kenny wasn’t buying that, either.

In a mixed ruling Monday, Kenny did not question going forward with the project. So the gleeful comment that “The high-speed rail project is derailed,” from Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, is an extravagant exaggeration.

The judge did not invalidate the July 2012 legislative appropriation for the high-speed rail program – authorizing spending of $3.3 billion in federal grants and $4.7 billion in Proposition 1A bonds.

Still, the judge’s ruling cannot be sugarcoated. He delivered a major setback that will delay the issuance of voter-approved Proposition 1A bonds by months.

Work funded with the federal grants will continue on the first 29 miles from northeast Madera to the southern edge of Fresno. Jeff Morales, chief executive officer of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, has made it clear the project will move forward.

The judge ruled in one case that the CHSRA has to “rescind its approval” of the 2011 funding plan. Morales expects to have a new draft in a few weeks that will identify the funding sources for the high-speed rail backbone in the Central Valley, connecting with BNSF tracks at each end – not just the first 29 miles.

The CHSRA also will need to have environmental approvals in hand for that Central Valley backbone, not just the first 29 miles. The CHSRA expects approvals by spring.

The judge ruled in a second case that the CHSRA Finance Committee has to do a better job documenting why it is “necessary and desirable” to issue bonds for specified amounts. He’s right. The CHSRA Finance Committee must do a better job of explaining, in detail, its reasoning to the public.

It’s important to keep in mind that no mega-projects are funded all at once. Morales points out that the last big highway project in California – Highway 210 in the Los Angeles area – was planned in the 1940s, commissioned in the 1950s and built in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and beyond. The last segment opened in 2007.

In California, we make infrastructure projects difficult with laws and initiatives that opponents can use to deliver “golden spikes” into any project they oppose.

The judge’s ruling will slow the project, making it more expensive. But it is not a golden spike.

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