Judge blocks sale of high-speed rail bonds | TheUnion.com

Judge blocks sale of high-speed rail bonds

Juliet Williams and Matthew Renda
Associated Press and Staff Writer
In this photo taken Wednesday, July 17, 2013, a passenger waits to board an Amtrak California train in Madera, Calif. Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, to reject a request from the California High-Speed Rail Authority to sell $8 billion of the $10 billion in bonds approved by voters in 2008. In a separate lawsuit he also ordered the rail authority to redo its $68 billion funding plan before continuing construction. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

A judge on Monday tore up California’s funding plans for what would be the nation’s first bullet train, issuing separate orders that could force the state to spend months or years redrawing its plans for the $68 billion rail line and that could choke off some of its funding.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny rejected a request from the California High-Speed Rail Authority to sell $8 billion of the $10 billion in bonds approved by voters in 2008, saying there was no evidence it was “necessary and desirable” to start selling the bonds when a committee of state officials met last March.

He said the committee, which included state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, was supposed to act as “the ultimate ‘keeper of the checkbook’” for taxpayers, but instead relied on a request from the high-speed rail authority to start selling bonds as sufficient evidence to proceed.

In a separate lawsuit, Kenny ordered the rail authority to redo its $68 billion funding plan, a process that could take months or years, although rail authority officials say they have already started and believe it can be done much more quickly than that. He had previously ruled that the authority abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with the law. The judge said the state failed to identify “sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible.”

It is also unclear who will decide if the new funding plan is sufficient. It will be submitted to the board that oversees the rail line, whose members have been appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a project booster, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, a longtime outspoken critic of the high-speed rail when he was a state Senator representing Nevada County, has not relented in his castigation of a project he views as the embodiment of a boondoggle.

“It’s been clear for years that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has little regard for the promises made to voters in 2008,” LaMalfa said. “After spending $600 million, the authority has nothing to show for it but a plan that violates the written bond measure that was passed. This ruling is a victory for voters and a reminder that California’s government must abide by its own laws, regardless of what some politicians think.”

While voters were promised a system connecting Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego for about $34 billion, the authority’s plan costs more than twice as much and would reach from near San Francisco to near Los Angeles, LaMalfa said. Despite being promised a one-seat ride, Californians would need to transfer to local mass transit to actually reach those cities.

Proposition 1A, which voters approved in 2008, required the rail authority to specify the source of the funding for the first operable segment of the high-speed rail line and have all the necessary environmental clearances in place. Kenny had said the agency did not comply with either mandate in approving the start of construction from Madera to Fresno, about 30 miles.

The plaintiffs, a group of Central Valley residents and farmers, believe the requirement applies to the first 300 miles stretching as far as Bakersfield with a projected price tag of $31 billion. But the rail authority contends it applies only to the first “usable” segment of track in the Central Valley.

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