SACRAMENTO -- California's proposed bullet train dodged a bullet Friday when a judge denied a request to block work on the high-speed rail section between Merced and Fresno.
After a three-hour court hearing, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley ruled that the threat of delaying progress on the project outweighed the risk to farmers and other property owners along the route. The judge reasoned that construction is not expected to begin until after the merits of three lawsuits over high-speed rail plans are decided.
Opponents wanted the judge to forbid the California High-Speed Rail Authority from any meaningful work on the Merced-Fresno section -- including planning and design, buying property or awarding construction contracts -- until he rules on those lawsuits. The first arguments in the case are set for April.
Those suing the authority were bitterly disappointed with the judge's ruling Friday afternoon.
"I think this is a slap in the face to our very pertinent agricultural interests," said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. "We're just as important as endangered species, we're just as important as any other threatened resource" under the state's environmental laws.
"We just weren't able to convince the judge that there is enough harm," Raudabaugh said as she fought back tears.
Opponents allege that the authority's 15,000-page environmental impact report failed to live up to the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act in its assessment of the project's effects on agriculture, wildlife habitat and endangered species. They also charge that the authority violated state open-meeting laws while making changes to the report.
But Frawley said the opponents failed to prove that the faults warranted an injunction to block the authority's work.
Because of the size of the project, "it is certainly possible, and perhaps even likely, that the agency may not have done everything perfectly," Frawley said. "But CEQA does not demand perfection. It demands that an agency act reasonably and make a good faith effort to fully disclose and where necessary mitigate the project's environmental impacts. At this preliminary stage of the case, I am not convinced that the authority has failed to meet this standard."
The request for an injunction was a component of three lawsuits against the rail authority over its approval of the proposed Merced-Fresno section of the statewide rail line: one by the Madera and Merced county farm bureaus, Madera County and property owners in Madera and Merced counties; one by the city of Chowchilla; and one by companies that own property along the rail route in Fresno and Madera counties. The lawsuits have been combined for court hearings.
The first portion of the statewide rail system to be built will be a stretch from east of Madera to the south end of Fresno. The rail authority expects to get bids from contractors for the work in mid-January. The cost is expected to be between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. Work on later construction sections southward from Fresno toward Bakersfield is expected to drive the total to about $6 billion.
A key factor Frawley considered was a September 2017 deadline for the state to use more than $3 billion in federal stimulus money for valley construction. The authority argued that significant delays in planning, engineering and construction could push back the start of work and jeopardize the federal money. About $3 billion from Proposition 1A, a state bond measure approved by voters in 2008, is expected to complete the valley work.
Authority Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Morales extended an olive branch Friday: "We don't want to just prevail in the courts. We want to make it more workable for the communities as we go forward."