The agency charged with building the nation's first bullet train system in California took two big steps Monday.
However, the legality of both is under fire, thanks to some very specific conditions imposed on the controversial project by the 2008 ballot measure that authorized its construction with nearly $10 billion in state bonds.
Critics – including the former legislator who was the major champion of a bullet train – contend that how it's now being proposed would violate those conditions, and their contentions will be tested in lawsuits.
Those unresolved legal and financial questions are on a collision course with the California High-Speed Rail Authority's plans to break ground later this year on an initial segment in the San Joaquin Valley to meet a looming deadline for spending a grant from the federal government.
The authority's five-member board voted unanimously to approve an agreement with the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board to design a "blended" system in which local commuter trains and the bullet train would share rails on the San Francisco Peninsula.
Merging the two services is designed to placate project opponents in the high-income neighborhoods on the peninsula. But opposition remains and critics say that a blended system cannot meet the bond measure's requirement that the bullet train carry passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes.
The board also approved a request to state financial officials to issue up to $8.6 billion in bonds to provide construction money for the 130-mile San Joaquin Valley segment and future construction as needed. But that project, critics also allege, would not meet the bond measure's requirement that any construction be a "usable segment."
The critics have found an ally in former state Sen. (and retired Superior Court Judge) Quentin Kopp, who carried legislation for the bullet train two decades ago and once was chairman of the bullet train board.
Kopp has submitted a lengthy critique of the current project's legality in support of a lawsuit filed against it by Kings County and local farmers. Kopp contends that with recent modifications, the project is no longer a "genuine high-speed rail system" as he and others envisioned and as, he says, the 2008 bond measure requires. He accuses the current board and management of ignoring the law in pursuit of a "blended system" to overcome political objections.
Authority Chairman Dan Richard and other bullet train officials dismiss the allegations of Kopp and other critics about the project's legality and have defended its ability to meet the 2:40 travel requirement between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
But the last word on its legality will come from the court system – and no one can predict with certainty what that will be.