In major win for high-speed rail, judge rejects claims by Kings County foes of bullet train

In a major setback to foes of the California high-speed rail project, a Sacramento judge rejected claims by opponents in Kings County that plans for the bullet train system violate state law.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny, who heard verbal arguments from attorneys Feb. 11, issued the ruling late Friday but the court didn’t release it to the public until Tuesday morning.

The ruling is a major setback to efforts to stop the project, and boosts California’s $64 billion plans to develop a system of high-speed electric trains to ultimately connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, by way of Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley, but Kenny’s ruling is almost certain to be appealed to a state appellate court.

Attorneys for Kings County farmer John Tos, Hanford resident Aaron Fukuda and the Kings County Board of Supervisors argued the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s plans for the system violate Proposition 1A – the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by the state’s voters in 2008 – in several key areas:

▪ That a proposed “blended” system in which high-speed trains would share upgraded and electrified tracks with the Caltrain commuter rail line between San Jose and San Francisco is inconsistent with what voters approved in the ballot measure. A switch from dedicated tracks only for high-speed trains on the San Francisco Peninsula was dropped in 2012 in favor of shared tracks to dampen opposition in the Bay Area and to trim about $30 billion from the overall system cost.

▪ That the proposed route would be unable to meet Prop. 1A’s requirement to provide a nonstop 2-hour 40-minute ride between San Francisco and Los Angeles under “real-world” travel conditions.

▪ That the system would not be financially viable and could not be realistically expected to meet the law’s mandate to cover its operating costs without any subsidy of public funds.

This was the second portion of the long-running Kings County lawsuit Kenny has ruled on since it was filed more than four years ago. In November 2013, Kenny ruled in favor of the Kings County plaintiffs in the first part of the case, agreeing the state’s preliminary 2011 funding plan for the rail system was flawed and violated Prop. 1A because it did not realistically identify all of the money needed to build an “initial operating segment” from the San Joaquin Valley to the San Fernando Valley, and because the authority could not certify it had all of the environmental clearances for that operating segment before starting construction anywhere on the route.

Kenny at that time ordered the rail authority rewrite its financing plan to comply with Prop. 1A. His decision was overturned in August 2014 by a three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal. The California Supreme Court declined to review the 3rd District decision.\

Even as the rail agency continues with construction in the San Joaquin Valley, it still faces additional legal challenges over its plans. Several lawsuits filed under the California Environmental Quality Act challenge the adequacy of the authority’s environmental-impact reports for its Fresno-Bakersfield section. A separate lawsuit against the California Air Resources Board seeks to overturn the use of cap-and-trade money from the state’s greenhouse gas-reduction program for the high-speed rail project.

▪ This story will be updated with reaction and analysis.

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