Thursday, October 16, 2014
High Court Leaves Ruling Favoring High-Speed Rail Intact
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The state Supreme Court yesterday denied review of a Third District Court of Appeal ruling that swept aside a challenge to the state’s $68 billion bullet train project, and allows construction to go ahead as planned.
The justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco, voted to leave standing the lower panel’s decision in California High‑Speed Rail Authority v. S.C. (Tos) (2014) 228 Cal. App. 4th 676.
The plaintiffs had questioned whether the California High-Speed Rail Authority was complying with the terms of the ballot measure that funded the project.
The appellate court agreed there are 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 said the arguments were brought too soon.
Plaintiffs from the Central Valley argued that the July appellate ruling undercut a century of legal precedent requiring the state to strictly comply with the intent of voters. Proposition 1A, approved in 2008, promised voters 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 contended.
The plaintiffs, Kings County and landowners in the Central Valley, successfully argued in Sacramento 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.
But Attorney General Kamala Harris and the state’s amici—who included local governments, labor unions, and legislators—argued that the trial judge was wrong in treating the High-Speed Rail Finance Committee, made up of five state officials charged with determining whether it was “reasonable or necessary” to issue bonds for the project, as a quasi-legislative body whose decision had to be supported by evidence in the record.
The Sacramento judge’s ruling last year prevented the sale of $8.6 billion in voter-approved bonds and created ongoing uncertainty about the project. The judge also ordered the state to draft a new funding plan and seek more environmental clearances, but the order was overturned by the Court of Appeal.
Presiding Justice Vance W. Raye, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed with the attorney general, saying the finance committee did what the law required it to do and that any defects in the rail authority’s preliminary funding plan for the project were of no consequence at this stage because the Legislature had appropriated the necessary funds. The trial judge’s ruling, Raye said, would have imposed standards unprecedented in bond validation cases.
The court’s decision not to hear the appeal “bodes poorly for all kinds of tax measures that go on the ballot because voters are going to say ‘How do I know they’re going to do this, how can I trust what they say?’” plaintiffs’ attorney Stuart Flashman told The Associated Press yesterday.
Dan Richard, chairman of the authority, said in a written statement that the state will move aggressively to build the system.
Demolition work and construction testing has already begun around Fresno, one of the hubs on the first 28-mile stretch in the Central Valley.
The Court of Appeal ruling concerns only one portion of the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. In a second phase still before the trial judge, attorneys will argue that compromises made to cut the price mean the bullet train won’t be able to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes as promised in the ballot measure.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company