Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: High-speed rail proceeds in fits and starts

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 “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 on Monday, Kenny did not question going forward with the project. So the gleeful comment that “The high-speed rail project is derailed,” by 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.

But the judge’s ruling cannot be sugarcoated. He did deliver 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-mile stretch of construction from northeast Madera to the south 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 CSHRA has to “rescind its approval” of the 2011 funding plan. Morales expects to have a new draft in the next 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 CSHRA also will need to have environmental approvals in hand for that Central Valley backbone, not just the first 29 miles. The CSHRA expects approvals by spring.

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

Why did the CHSRA seek authority for the full $8.6 billion approved by voters in 2008, instead of amounts needed for the first phase of work? It is understandable that the CSHRA would want to authorize bonds once instead of having opponents challenge every authorization.

Why not simply authorize the $4.7 billion amount in Senate Bill 1029, which was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in July 2012? That would provide the $2.6 billion to complete the initial segment in the Central Valley – plus funds to connect existing rail with high-speed rail and work on the bookends in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Judge Kenny made it clear in an earlier ruling on high-speed rail that Proposition 1A left the question of whether to make an appropriation based on the funding plan “to the Legislature’s collective judgment” and did not give the courts authority to “interfere with that exercise of judgment.” The $4.7 billion path is clear. The aim should be bond issuances in the spring and fall of 2014.

We all need to remember that no mega-projects are funded all at once. Morales points out that the last big highway project in California – the 210 in the Los Angeles area – was planned in the 1940s, commissioned in the 1950s and built in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. 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.