By Gennady Sheyner and Sandy Brundage
California's contentious drive to build a high-speed-rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles sped ahead July 6, when state lawmakers approved funding for the first construction phase. But the $68 billion project still has to pass through a gauntlet of legal, financial and political obstacles before it becomes reality.
The most immediate threat comes from litigation, of which there has been no shortage. Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton remain involved in a lawsuit against the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the agency charged with building the system. That lawsuit, which claims in part that the authority's environmental analysis relies on erroneous ridership projections, entered mediation on Monday, July 16, for possible settlement, according to attorney Stuart Flashman, who represents the cities. He declined to comment further until mediation "ends one way or another" and explained that if mediation fails, the case returns to the courtroom to be weighed by a panel of three judges.
Yet even if the rail authority settles the Peninsula lawsuit, it faces fierce opposition. In the Central Valley, where construction is set to begin, a coalition of agencies, including the Madera County and Merced County farm bureaus and the Chowchilla Water District, filed a lawsuit in June. It argues that the rail authority "due to a myriad of analytical deficiencies, failed to disclose and analyze the full scope and severity of impacts."
The litigation could continue as the rail authority unveils its "project-level" environmental impact reports, which pertain to specific segments of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line and have a higher level of engineering and design specificity. Palo Alto Councilman Larry Klein said the city will consider in the coming months whether it should file or join any other lawsuits against the rail authority.
Lawsuits are also rolling forward on the individual level. Menlo Park attorney Michael Brady said he filed an amended complaint against the rail authority and state officials "10 minutes before the Senate vote." The latest maneuver in his eight-year battle against high-speed rail, the suit was brought on behalf of two Kings County residents in danger of an eminent domain seizure if the authority runs tracks through their properties. But that barely scratches the surface of Mr. Brady's concerns, who did not mince words.
"This matter has become a giant fraud on the voters: right now, there is an illegal raid on the $9 billion Prop 1A bond funds; all the money is now planned for use on conventional rail; not one inch of true (HSR) track will ever be laid," he said in an email. The lawyer thinks the state is violating the provisions of Proposition 1 A by starting construction before funding for the entire project has been secured.
Then there are the political hurdles, including bids to have California voters weigh in a second time on the high-speed-rail project. Although a bill by State Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, met a quick death on the Senate floor, a group of opponents led by former U.S. Rep. George Radanovich is pursuing a similar citizen initiative. In its petition, the group argues that the state "cannot afford to pay for a high-speed train system that will cost more than $100 billion at a time when teachers and police are being laid off, prisoners are being released from prisons, and taxpayers are being asked to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for basic services."
Meanwhile, city officials and rail watchdogs are still analyzing the text of Senate Bill 1029, which passed the Senate in a 21-20 vote. Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of the Palo Alto-based group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, said the group remains concerned about where the rest of the funds for the system will come from.
"When you look at full costs and benefits in the Central Valley -- it's very little positive transportation value unless you spend another $30 billion dollars," Ms. Alexis said. "The concern is that this will act as a sponge for all available money that can go to other worthy projects."
The specific language of the budget-trailer bill only adds to the anxiety. For example, the bill allocates $1.1 billion for a "blended system" on the Peninsula -- a design under which high-speed rail and Caltrain can share two tracks between San Jose and San Francisco. But the bill also states that the $1.1 billion can be transferred to other items, including construction in the Central Valley (known in the bill as Item 2665-306-6043), with approval from the state Department of Finance.
"It looks like accounting minutiae, but if you translate it, it means that with one signature from a governor appointee, the money for Caltrain can be moved to the Central Valley project," Ms. Alexis said.
"The first time you read a bill it seems very clear to you," she added. "It's only on the 12th reading of the bill that you really understand all the loopholes."
City officials have other concerns about the specific bill, which appears to leave room for the rail authority to pursue the unpopular four-track design instead of the more palatable blended system. Menlo Park Councilman Rich Cline said the Legislature voted to support a bill that doesn't guarantee the rail authority would pursue a blended system. "Four tracks wasn't taken out," he said. "This vote was not a vote that would say no four tracks, no three tracks, no elevated tracks."
Martin Engel thinks the Legislature's approval may be the beginning of the end. A Menlo Park resident resolved to fight a good fight alongside fellow residents Mr. Brady and Morris Brown, he said, "To mix some metaphors, the Legislature and governor have handed this project more than enough rope as California races to hang itself."
As if the state's economic problems weren't enough to question the wisdom of pursuing high-speed rail, Mr. Engel pointed to "incompetence and mismanagement" of the rail authority, criticisms that linger despite high-level staff changes at the agency.
Mr. Brown, who founded DERAIL, a grassroots effort to stop high-speed rail said in a blog post that the battle "will now be fought outside our legislative chambers" and called for a re-vote by state residents during the November elections.