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Ex-rail booster calls new bullet train plan 'mangled,' perhaps illegal

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Kings County Board of Supervisors files lawsuit after Senate approves high-speed rail plan

Even as the state Senate voted last week to approve California’s $68 billion high-speed rail plan, opponents filed yet another lawsuit to stop the controversial construction project.

Former California High-Speed Rail Authority Chairman Quentin Kopp, who led a 20-year fight for the bullet train, said he believes this latest lawsuit poses a real threat.

The compromise high-speed rail plan crafted by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved Friday is a “mangled” – and probably illegal – version of the project state voters enacted in a 2008 initiative, Kopp said in a phone interview.

“They have distorted high-speed rail and twisted it into (providing) money for commuter rail services,” he  said.

Kopp is not a party to the suit but said he was familiar with its assertions. His comments are of note because for decades – first as a San Francisco legislator and then as rail authority chairman – he was among the California's leading advocates for high-speed rail.

“I can’t say it was unnecessary to get the votes, but it’s not high-speed rail,” Kopp, who also is a retired judge, said of the compromise plan. “It violates (the initiative) in at least four respects and maybe five.”

In a statement, rail authority CEO Jeff Morales said the rail plan enacted last week – including its expenditures on commuter rail service in the Bay Area and Southern California – was "fully in compliance" with the bullet train law enacted by voters, called Proposition 1A.

"This is now a truly statewide vision that is born directly from the funds made available when the voters passed Prop. 1A," he said of the new rail plan.

Morales declined to comment on the latest lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court by the County of Kings Board of Supervisors. Central Valley farmers fear that rail construction will wreck vast stretches of prime agricultural land.

The suit accuses the state of illegally spending public funds on the bullet train, arguing that Brown’s reconfigured or “blended” plan for the rail system simply cannot produce what voters authorized.

On four earlier occasions, judges have rebuffed similar lawsuits, saying they were filed prematurely. That might no longer be the case now that the Legislature has voted to issue $4.5 billion in state bonds to begin construction of the first segment, a line between Merced and Fresno.

Michael Brady, Kings County’s lawyer, said he was in the Capitol on Friday to watch the Senate vote. As approval neared, he said he went to the courthouse and filed the lawsuit, which seeks a court order stopping all spending on the project.

“The vote by the Senate doesn’t make any difference,” he contended. “The Legislature cannot approve a project that violates the law passed by the voters.”

The system approved by voters in 2008 is supposed to link San Francisco and Los Angeles with electric trains traveling more than 200 mph, whisking travelers between the two cities in two hours, 40 minutes.

Passengers aren’t supposed to have to change trains, and the state is barred from paying operating subsidies to the rail line. Those and many other provisions are written into state law.

Earlier this year, after construction costs ballooned to an estimated $98 billion, Brown slashed $30 billion from the project’s budget. To save money, the project was reconfigured into what is called a “blended” rail system, in which the bullet train would share tracks with commuter rail systems on the San Francisco Peninsula and in the Los Angeles basin.

The $8 billion spending package approved by the Legislature includes an anticipated $3.2 billion in federal funding. The measure passed the Assembly easily. But in the Senate, the vote was 21 to 16, with four Democrats refusing to endorse the measure. Republicans were uniformly opposed.

In an apparent attempt to attract support, the governor’s measure included about $2 billion for transit improvements for San Francisco's Muni system, BART, Caltrain and Los Angeles’ Metrolink service.

The governor hailed the vote, saying, "The Legislature took bold action today that gets Californians back to work and puts California out in front once again.”

The lawsuit contends that the latest version of the project is so fundamentally different from what voters authorized that it should not be allowed to proceed.

The bullet train is supposed to be electric-powered, but as the project is now devised, it doesn’t provide for electrification, the lawsuit claims. 

State spending isn’t supposed to begin until after the project obtains its environmental permits. But the project hasn’t gotten its permits and instead faces multiple environmental lawsuits, the complaint says.

Meanwhile, the shared-tracks plan will require the bullet train to go so slowly that it won’t be able to meet its travel time requirement, the suit says, and passengers probably will have to change trains twice between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The lawsuit also contends that the project will not meet its promised completion date of the year 2020 and is likely to require “hundreds of millions” of dollars in subsidies.

Kopp said he was disappointed that there were no plans to electrify the Central Valley segment. Planners wanted to start construction in the valley because it’s a good place “to test the trains at 220 miles per hour,” Kopp said.

Without electrification, trains can’t attain that speed, he said.

“It’s not what I fought for,” Kopp said of the project. “It’s a different system, and therein lies legal problems.”

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