Dan Walters: Court case may derail California's bullet train

08/20/2013 12:00 AM

08/20/2013 10:42 AM

When former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators asked voters for a north-south bullet train five years ago, they knew it would be a hard sell.

Therefore, they included safeguards to persuade voters that it was a well- reasoned project that would not become a money pit, including:

The state's exposure would be limited to the $9.95 billion bond issue, about a fourth of the estimated cost.

There could be no operating subsidies.

Trains would run between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 160 minutes.

Financing and environmental studies would have to be completed before a "usable segment" was built.

Even so, and even without a dime being spent against it, the ballot measure was approved very narrowly.

Since then, polls indicate that public sentiment has turned against the project as costs have ballooned, as only a token amount of federal funds has been forthcoming, and as design changes made the 160- minute promise a pipe dream.

However, Schwarzenegger's successor, Jerry Brown, and his High-Speed Rail Authority have pushed ahead, planning to build a 130-mile portion in the San Joaquin Valley that's been dubbed, not inaccurately, as the train to nowhere.

Critics have pointed out repeatedly that the seemingly solid assurances in the 2008 ballot measure were being ignored in the rush to move some dirt, particularly the supposed mandate to have environmental impact studies cleared and financing lined up in advance of construction.

Brown and other advocates have simply ignored the criticism and forged ahead – apparently hoping that once construction began, there would be a psycho-political commitment to see it through.

But last week, a Sacramento judge declared that if the law approved by voters says certain things must be done before construction begins, the state cannot simply ignore them.

"Having exercised its independent judgment in this matter as authorized by law, the court concludes that the authority abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with the requirements of law," Judge Michael Kenny ruled in a lawsuit brought by San Joaquin Valley opponents, adding that the agency had failed to identify "sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible."

What happens now is anyone's guess. Kenny will impose some remedy, and there will be appeals. But if it holds, the ruling could be a death knell because there's simply no way to comply with the ballot measure's plain language.

Something more than the fate of a dubious public works project is at stake. If officials can ignore laws that protect the governed, then the underpinnings of a free society are destroyed.

WEEKDAY VIDEO REPORT

The Bee's Dan Walters is providing weekday video updates on Capitol policy and politics. Find "Dan Walters Daily" at www.sacbee.com/capitolalert .

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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