By Dan Walters, November 29, 2013
An undated handout rendering of California's high-speed rail project.
The state's leaders have rallied around a plan to build a rail line from
Los Angeles to San Francisco, in the face of seemingly insurmountable
political and fiscal obstacles.
Judge Michael Kenny didn't completely derail California's bullet train this week.
However, in ruling on two lawsuits challenging Gov. Jerry Brown's pet project, Kenny told the California High-Speed Rail Authority to slow down and stop sidestepping requirements in a 2008 ballot measure.
rejecting the state's specious legal arguments, refusing to validate
the issuance of state bonds and insisting on a complete financial plan
as the law requires, Kenny signaled a strict attitude that could bode
ill for the project in another big legal challenge next year.
While the project's Kings County opponents didn't get everything they sought in the rulings, one of their lawyers, Stuart Flashman,
accurately said they "are a major setback for the High-Speed Rail
Authority. They need to step back and rethink their whole approach."
approach has been to push initial construction as rapidly as possible,
apparently in hopes that if even a short stretch of track is laid in the
San Joaquin Valley, it would incur a psychological commitment to finish
the entire project, no matter what the cost.
Speed may be
critical, because the 2008 bond issue barely passed. Since then, as
costs have skyrocketed and its lack of financing has become apparent,
public sentiment has turned against the project.
ballot measure's restrictions, it probably would have failed, but it's
also evident that as now envisioned, the project cannot meet all of the
One of Kenny's rulings says, in effect, that
the state can't build that short stretch in the San Joaquin Valley
without a plan that lays out how a much longer stretch from Merced to
Southern California can be financed.
Since the state has barely
enough money for the first stretch, the barrier to meeting the larger
financial standard is very high.
The judge's strict
constructionist attitude toward the law governing the project could bite
again when he weighs another suit that alleges other ballot measure
standards are being ignored - such as requiring a 160-minute ride from
downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles.
envisioned, the bullet train might have met the requirement, but to
quiet stiff opposition on the San Francisco Peninsula, project managers
devised a "blended system" that merges high-speed service with local
The bullet train folks have theorized that a
blended system could meet the 160-minute standard, but it's based on
assumptions that defy common sense.
It's time for a
backspace-delete. Brown should acknowledge that the project as now
planned is doomed and either kill it or go back to the voters with a
revision that includes realistic routes and costs and lays out how it
will be financed.
If it's worth doing - a debatable point - it's
worth doing right and not with legal sleight-of-hand and