Monday’s L.A. Times story with this headline — “Bid to appease bullet train critics may violate law” — and this subhead — “Revisions are in conflict with the ballot measure approved by voters and may go against the Obama administration’s plans. Gov. Jerry Brown backs the changes but admits potential legal problems” escaped my notice for a day. But it’s epochal: It points out the clear path to the bullet train’s demise. Sharp attorneys hired by well-heeled opponents of the project — whether they are cities in the Silicon Valley, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association or Central Valley agribusiness, or all three in tandem — are going to kill this dead in court, using the incredibly specific provisions in Proposition 1A exactly as they were intended: to prevent a boondoggle. Hip hip hooray!
A series of concessions over the last year to quiet opposition to the California bullet train has created a potentially lethal problem: the revised blueprint for the system may violate requirements locked into state law when voters approved funding for the project in 2008.
The Legislature packed the law with an unusual number of conditions intended to reassure voters, protect the project from later political compromises and ensure that it would not end up a bankrupted white elephant.
But many of those requirements may be at odds with the plan to integrate bullet trains with existing commuter rail lines in Los Angeles and San Francisco. …
Outside critics, state oversight boards, some legislators and former officials of the California High-Speed Rail Authority say the compromises violate those requirements …
The story quotes Jerry Brown as being dismissive of the possibility that a judge might block construction if he found Prop. 1A was being violated, but that is just laughable. That’s because we’re not talking about the state trying to finesse the rules. The rail authority wants to obliterate them:
The mandates in the law are considerable. They require that any initial segment has to use high-speed trains. Money for each operating segment needs to be in hand before construction starts. Passengers must be able to board in Los Angeles and arrive in San Francisco without changing trains. As many as 12 trains per hour are supposed to run in each direction and the system has to operate without taxpayer subsidies.
Instead, the rail authority has agreed to run fewer trains at slower speeds on tracks shared with commuter rail systems, Amtrack and freight trains. In the early years, passengers will probably have to transfer trains to get from one end of the system to the other. The concept, known as the blended approach, was pushed last year by Bay Area politicians, who fought the original plan to run high-speed trains through the region on 60-foot high viaducts over local neighborhoods. The idea has attracted support in Southern California as well.
What’s funny about this is that the same Legislature that wrote all these specific provisions into the law wrote the ballot summary that bamboozled voters in 2008. It was so outrageously slanted that it led to a Howard Jarvis lawsuit that prompted a state appeals court to essentially block lawmakers from ever again writing ballot descriptions.
So on the one hand, they were duplicitous scumbags manipulating us into voting for $9.95 billion in bond seed money for the project. But on the other hand, they were careful watchdogs who built in safeguards to protect us … from they themselves?
What a deliciously strange twist.
Kings County is already suing the rail authority for noncompliance with 1A. And Jon Coupal, president of Howard Jarvis, is ready to jump in.
“We don’t see how these bonds could ever be issued with such a significant legal cloud hanging over them,” he wrote in an email to me. “In addition to the existing legal challenges, it is likely that multiple parties would jump into any validation action filed by the state seeking to inoculate the financing. Wall Street itself may demand that the issue be revisited by the voters.”
That’s a great point. Not even Kamala Harris, our Mussolini fan of an attorney general, is going to be able to make this train run on time, or ever.
Editor’s note: This was updated at 8 a.m. March 28 to add Coupal’s comments.