An artist's rendering of the proposed train. (California High-Speed Rail Authority)
An artist’s rendering of the proposed train. (California High-Speed Rail Authority)

California’s High-Speed Rail Authority certainly frames things optimistically. Agency leaders insist the first phase of the San Francisco-Los Angeles rail line is in its construction phase, even though the actual physical construction won’t begin until early next year.  And Dan Richard, chair of the agency’s board, characterizes a recent court ruling temporarily blocking the project access to $8 billion as “a bump in the road.”

Thursday, at the board’s first public meeting since last week’s court decision, Richard announced staff will begin the process of re-applying for the bond authorization.

Even though California voters approved bond-funding for $10 billion of the estimated $68 billion rail project cost in 2008, the authority needs to seek approval from a finance committee before any bonds are sold. That’s what Judge Michael Kenny refused to validate last week. Richard framed that as a paperwork problem.

“The judge said, ‘You guys didn’t put enough information on the record.’ Period. That’s what he said,” he told reporters during a break in the board’s Sacramento meeting.  “He didn’t say, ‘I’m not going to let you get to the bonds.’ He didn’t say, ‘What you’re trying to do is inappropriate.’ He said, ‘You just didn’t put information on the record.’ Easiest thing in the world to do is go back and put ample information on the record that we have.”

The ruling also required the authority to rework its financial plan. And on Wednesday, a federal board dealt the project another setback by declining a request to speed up environmental permitting.

Richard characterized all those rulings as minor obstacles. But critic Mike Brady, the lead lawyer in the suit challenging the high speed rail project, argued the hurdles are much higher: The project needs to find tens of billions of dollars in additional financing, and it’s more than a decade away from its real goal — a fast route between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. “What reasonable person is going to get on a high-speed train from Madera to Fresno, or Madera to Bakersfield? What’s the big deal? You want to get to L.A. County. And you want to get there from San Francisco or San Jose.”

Brady’s lawsuit argues the current rail plan’s cost and scope has ballooned far beyond what voters approved in 2008.

The rail project doesn’t immediately need state bond money to begin construction in the Central Valley, because it’s already secured more than $3 billion dollars in federal funding. Richard says that money will last through next spring.

  • This is a dead project walking. It was always a dumb project, based on nothing but a wish for a bullet train. The project never had enough money. Check out this from its 2009 business plan:

    Federal Grants: $17-19 billion
    State Grants (Prop. 1A bonds): $9.95 billion
    Local Grants: $4-5 billion
    Private Funding: $10-12 billion

    The feds have chipped in $3 billion but are unlikely to provide any more. The state can’t get the court to approve selling the $9.95 billion in bonds. No local government is going to give any of this money, since they all have their own budget issues. And there’s been no private money invested at all thus far.


Scott Detrow

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report.

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