California High-Speed Rail Opponents Aim to Overturn Lower Court Ruling Allowing Bullet Train Project

Opponents of California's $68 billion high-speed rail project submitted an appeal Tuesday to the state Supreme Court, asking it to overturn a lower court's ruling that allowed the project to proceed despite questions about whether it complies with promises made to voters.

Central Valley residents argue in their petition that the July 31 ruling by the appellate court undercuts 100 years of legal precedent requiring strict compliance with the intent of the voters in implementing a voter-approved bond measure.

Proposition 1A, approved by voters, promised that the state would identify funding for the first useable segment of the rail line and that it would have necessary environmental clearances done before starting construction.

The plaintiffs, Kings County and landowners in the Central Valley, successfully argued in Sacramento County Superior Court that the state failed on both counts, identifying only $6 billion of the estimated $26 billion needed for the first 130-mile segment, and failing to secure sufficient environmental approvals.

In rulings that prevented the sale of $8.6 billion in voter-approved bonds and created ongoing uncertainty about the project, the judge ordered the state to draft a new funding plan and seek more environmental clearances.

In its ruling last month, the 3rd District Court of Appeal acknowledged legitimate legal concerns about whether the ``high-speed rail project the California High-Speed Rail Authority seeks to build is the project approved by the voters.''

But the judges said plans are still in flux and noted that on other public-works projects, the California Supreme Court has allowed substantial deviation between preliminary plans given to voters and the eventual final project.

In the petition to the high court, the plaintiffs note that the appellate court also said the state Legislature had included strictures in the ballot language that amounted to a ``financial straitjacket.''

``The court of appeal's decision, however, allows the authority _ and the Legislature _ to escape, Houdini-like, from that straitjacket, undercutting the intent of the voters and raising questions about whether voters can put their trust in clear, mandatory provisions placed in a bond measure,'' they argued.

Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the rail authority, said in a statement that project opponents ``still hope to thwart the will of the people,'' but the agency is committed to building a high-speed rail system that brings economic and environmental benefits to the state.

Separately, the 3rd District Court of Appeal on Tuesday denied petitions to re-hear the case filed by the plaintiffs and by two other interested parties, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and a Bakersfield church whose property lies in the bullet train's planned path.

Demolition work and construction testing has already begun around Fresno, one of the first hubs on a 28-mile stretch in the Central Valley.

Other impediments remain, however, including ongoing uncertainty about funding; a land-acquisition process that is behind schedule; and another lawsuit by the same plaintiffs arguing that compromises made to cut the price to $68 billion mean the bullet train won't be able to travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes, as promised.

The petition submitted Tuesday will be filed with the court Wednesday. There is no timeline for the court to decide whether to hear the case.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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