Judge Puts Another Roadblock in Front of California Bullet Train

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Sacramento Superior Court judge Michael Kenny has delivered another blow to California’s bullet train:

Kenny ruled that the state failed to identify where it would get all of the money required to complete an initial $31-billion operating segment between Merced and the San Fernando Valley. The state has also failed to obtain environmental clearances for the entire segment, the judge found.

In addition to $9 billion from state bonds, the rail agency has $3.2 billion in federal funds, leaving it about $19 billion short. It has not completed any of the four massive environmental reviews that would be necessary to build the line along that route, as required by the 2008 ballot measure, Proposition 1A.

The measure “required the Authority to identify sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible, but instead were reasonably expected to be actually available when needed,” Kenny said in his 15-page ruling. The state’s business plan identifies only potential funding, without commitments, agreements or authorizations, he said.

This has the potential to be a major setback. California’s HSR authority has been desperately trying to break ground on something, in the hopes that once some land has been acquired and a few miles of track have been laid, it will be impossible to stop. This “camel’s nose” approach is fairly common in large public works projects, and opponents are therefore equally desperate to keep those first few miles from being built.

So far, Kenny hasn’t actually halted construction work, and the rail authority says it’s moving full speed ahead regardless. But there will be further hearings, and it’s possible that Kenny or another judge could eventually prohibit any groundbreaking until all the environmental reviews are done and funding is fully in place. That could easily be a death knell for the entire project, since funding right now is a mirage. It’s plainly not going to come from the feds; private funding is highly unlikely; and state legislators have been steadily losing their initial enthusiasm for the project. It’s not game-over yet, not even close. But this is a big deal.

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