SACRAMENTO - Another $63 million was added Tuesday to the cost of California's high-speed rail project and the completion date for the first 29-mile leg was pushed back 17 months to August 2019, after the state won a lawsuit that had tied up land needed for construction for four years.
Landowners in the Central Valley sought to block the controversial $64 billion project there, but a Sacramento County Superior Court judge ruled in March that plans for the system do not violate promises made to voters who approved selling nearly $10 billion in bonds for the project.
The ruling allowed planning and financing to proceed.
The lead plaintiff in the suit, Kings County, announced last month that it would not appeal, ending the lawsuit.
"Opponents of major infrastructure projects have long used legal maneuvers and other tactics to try to stop construction - practices that hurt local businesses, delay hiring and waste taxpayer dollars," high-speed rail spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley said in a statement, adding that the project's overall budget and schedule will not be affected.
The lawsuit had tied up access to financing and officials said nearly 500 appraisals for land along the route became outdated during that time. The board that oversees the project included a $160 million reserve when it approved its original $985.1 million contract with construction consortium Tutor Perini-Zachry-Parsons. Officials said the additional cost would come from that reserve.
Alley said the agency now has 63 percent of the parcels needed along the 29-mile route from Fresno to Madera.
Ron Tutor, chairman of the lead company, Sylmar-based Tutor Perini Corp., said both sides compromised to get the project going again.
"Unfortunately this was hanging over the job from the beginning, where we were unable to go to work because litigation was tying up all the properties," he said in an interview.
Aaron Fukuda, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, questioned whether the delays in acquiring land were really caused by the lawsuit. He said he believed many of the outdated appraisals were caused by internal issues at the high-speed rail authority, not the lawsuit, and said rail authority officials repeatedly said publicly that they could proceed while in litigation because the project was using federal funds.
Still, money and political support for what would be the nation's first high-speed rail project has lagged. California has secured another $3.2 billion in federal matching funds and the project is supposed to receive money each year from the state's greenhouse gas emission fund, which sold only a fraction of the credits expected in an auction this month.
California faces a September 2017 deadline to spend the federal stimulus money. High-speed rail Chairman Jeff Morales told the board Tuesday that the state expects to meet the deadline.
In the Central Valley lawsuit, the Sacramento County judge agreed with landowners and the county that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has not proven the rail system will be financially viable or can meet the travel times voters were promised, but he said their lawsuit was premature because the system continues to evolve.