Dan Walters: Legal tussles tie rail plan's fate

December 11, 2012 

California's highly controversial bullet train project is headed for some kind of political collision.

While the California High-Speed Rail Authority is trying to quickly spend billions of state and federal dollars on a starter line in the San Joaquin Valley, the tens of billions in federal funds needed to expand the project appear to be entangled in frantic federal budget negotiations.

Republicans retained control of the House in last month's elections and the No. 3 figure in the GOP hierarchy, Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy, last week reiterated a House resolution declaring that no more federal money be allocated for the bullet train.

"The current plan to be finished -- at the smallest level -- asks for another $38 billion from the federal government," McCarthy told a hearing on the issue. "Please put that in perspective. The debate we're wrestling over for the rest of the month, on our fiscal cliff, if you raised all the dollars and raised all the taxes that is proposed, you only get $31 billion in a year. And they're requesting more than what we would even get from that." The Obama administration, however, renewed its pledge to appropriate more federal money for the project, and backing for more appears to be strong in the Senate.

Both of California's senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, support the project, as does majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevadan who harbors fond ambitions of a bullet train linking Las Vegas and Los Angeles that would be dependent on California's train becoming operational.

Meanwhile, back in California, opponents of the project along the route of the initial segment in the San Joaquin Valley -- farmers and county officials, primarily -- are continuing to fight it in court, bucking authorizing legislation enacted this year by the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown.

While the opponents failed to get a temporary restraining order to block planning for the segment, they are planning full-fledged trials on lawsuits challenging it via the California Environmental Quality Act. An extended court battle could push the project beyond a federal deadline for construction and therefore could open a new front in the Legislature.

Brown and Democratic legislative leaders have said they want to overhaul CEQA to prevent its misuse to block worthy private and public projects.

At one point, Brown suggested that the bullet train be exempted. He later backed off after environmental groups protested, but it's still a possibility.

Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, who voted for the project even though it's unpopular in his region, has been appointed chairman of a Senate committee tasked to write a CEQA overhaul. Given the circumstances, it's almost certain that the bullet train's fate will be a subtext.

E-mail: dwalters@sacbee.com

THE SACRAMENTO BEE

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