Last Friday, opponents of California’s high-speed rail line told a California state judge that the California High-Speed Rail Authority has not met all the requirements to start building the first stage of the state’s high-speed rail line. As approved by voters in 2008, the law requires, among other things, that the authority identify the “sources of all funds to be invested in the corridor, or usable segment thereof” and hat the “authority has completed all necessary project level environmental clearances necessary to proceed to construction.”
So far, the authority only has funds to build a portion of the “minimum operable segment” from Madera to the San Fernando Valley and environmental clearances for only 29 miles of this segment. Opponents argued that the authority could not begin construction until it met these requirements.
The state did not attempt to refute these contentions but merely argued that when the legislature authorized the sale of $2.6 billion in bonds it effectively negated these legal requirements. The plan “was deficient,” admitted the deputy attorney general who argued the case. “The Legislature looked at it and said, we would like more, but this is what we’ve got and it made its decision. Those are political decisions that I can’t comment on.” As a result, she added, the judge has no authority to overrule the legislature.
Even if the state wins this part of the case, opponents are ready to further argue that the plan fails to meet legal requirements that the legislature may not have been able to overrule. For example, the law specifies that trains are to go between Los Angeles and San Francisco in no more than two hours and forty minutes, but the authority admits that its current plan won’t achieve that goal. Further, during the campaign the authority promised tickets between L.A. and San Francisco would cost $50 but now it says they will exceed $80.
In any case, the authority’s plans to begin construction in July have been delayed for other reasons. Under the terms of the $3.3 billion federal grant to the project, the state is to complete the first 130-mile phase by 2017, which increasingly seems like an impossible task.
The authority says that, even if it doesn’t get any more money than it now has in hand, what it builds will at least take 20 minutes off the journey for the Amtrak trains that use this route. Last year, these trains carried about 92,000 riders (about 250 riders per day), which means they would save a little more than 30,000 hours per year. Amortizing $6 billion over 30 years at 3 percent interest results in an annual cost of just over $300 million a year, or about $10,000 per hour saved. Such a deal.