SACRAMENTO – The plaintiffs in a lawsuit opposing the construction of California's $64 billion high-speed rail system are considering their options now that a judge has ruled that the project can move forward.
"Obviously, my clients are very disappointed in the ruling," Oakland attorney Stuart Flashman said in an email to the Northern California Record. "We think Judge (Michael) Kenny misconstrued Proposition 1A and the voters’ understanding of what they were approving. That said, my clients have not yet decided whether they will appeal the ruling."
In the ruling announced on Tuesday, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny delivered a major setback for Kings County representatives and two landowners who challenged the state's estimates about ridership, construction and operating figures. The plaintiffs in the case had asked Kenny to block California from spending money on the high-speed rail project.
Instead, Kenny, who heard verbal arguments in the case on Feb. 11, ruled the project does not violate promises made to voters in the 2008 Proposition 1A ballot measure and said planning and financing can proceed.
"The key question at this time is whether the authority has taken any actions that preclude compliance with the bond act," Kenny wrote in his ruling. "Plaintiffs have failed to provide evidence at this time that the authority has taken such an action."
The case against the project was filed approximately five years ago by Kings County farmer John Tos, landowner Aaron Fukuda and Kings County representatives. Approximately $10 billion in bonds have been approved by voters for what would be the first high-speed rail line in the U.S., a project often called California's "Bullet Train." The state also has secured an additional $3.2 billion in federal matching funds and annual funding from the state's greenhouse gas emission fund.
Although the California High-Speed Rail Authority does not appear to have sufficient evidence to prove its blended system can comply with all bond act requirements, Kenny wrote that may change.
"The Authority may be able to accomplish these objectives at some point in the future," Kenny wrote. "This project is an ongoing, dynamic, changing project."
The ruling also pointed out that the project has not, even yet, been fully funded.
"Although plaintiffs have raised compelling questions about future compliance, the Authority has not yet submitted a funding plan," Kenny wrote. For these reasons, issue of the project's compliance "is not ripe for review," Kenny wrote.
Despite this blow to the plaintiffs in the case, Flashman said his clients have gotten their points across.
"Even though the ruling denied all our claims as unripe, we think the ruling serves as a 'warning shot' across the bow of the high-speed rail authority," Flashman said. "The ruling makes it clear that if the current system were measured against the requirements set by Proposition. 1A, it would fail. The ruling says that challenge will not ripen until the Authority submits a funding plan asking to spend the bond funds that have already been appropriated."
Flashman said he thinks the High-Speed Rail Authority knows its system would not "pass muster."
"That’s why no bonds are being used and no second funding plan has been submitted for approval," he said. "Sadly, if this ruling stands, the Authority will continue to limp along on the very limited funds it now has available until it eventually runs out of money, without having constructed anything even faintly resembling a high-speed rail system. The legislature’s refusal to pull the plug on this failing agency is a glaring example of the legislature’s financial irresponsibility."
Amid all that, Flashman said there are other lessons to be learned from the case.
"Perhaps one lesson to be gained is that the old 'let the buyer beware' caution may also apply to ballot measures - what you read in the voter handbook may bear little relation to what actually is done," Flashman said. "I, personally, think this is very poor public policy, as it will lead to voters becoming more and more unwilling to approve granting government more money or power."