Just How Many Nails Do We Need for the High Speed Rail Coffin???
The month of November 2013, provided the California High Speed Rail Project (Project) and it’s Authority with the biggest blows in the Project’s entire 20 year sordid history. Sacramento Superior Court Judge, Michael Kenny, ruled last August that the Authority violated multiple mandatory aspects of Proposition 1A in submitting a faulty funding plan to the state Legislature for bond issuance and approval. In conclusion to the remedies hearing in November, the Judge ruled just before Thanksgiving that based on these violations, the Authority is now going to be required to re-do their funding plan before any construction can begin. In a sideways slap the Judge also refused to validate the state bonds for the project, as the Authority had requested to begin selling them immediately.
This ruling will do a number of things –although little to help Madera County’s position in the project construction cue and even less as to affect the plight of our members and farmers with current land acquisition proceedings with the Authority. Namely, the construction contracts and other non-state allocated budget money will now shift into overdrive the use of spending any and all Federal dollars as quickly as possible. Promises have been made and contractors will be pressing hard to be paid. This also extends to the direct consulting contracts the Authority has entered into as a result of outreach, land acquisition, engineering, ect. Authority staff will not be affected (at least not immediately) because their positions are a state budget appropriation. The Judge stopped short of issuing an injunction against the Project and its construction efforts because to date, only Federal dollars have been promised and spent. The reason the race will be on to spend what money is available is because the sideways slap of not validating the bonds (the first time in California history) disallows any sale of bonds –which is what Proposition 1A is predicated on in order to provide matching state money for the project. It is unclear whether the Judge will reconsider –or whether the Authority will appeal –if and when an acceptable funding plan is submitted. In the meantime, Congressman Denham, Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, and a local Valley antagonist of the Project, has pounced on this opportunity to potentially illustrate a funding gap in Federal v. State dollars by requesting another Government Accountability Office (GAO) report into the Project’s spending.
Land acquisition endeavors by the Authority in Madera County have been innately slow. Due in large part to multiple bureaucracies involved (not just the Authority), not a single parcel in Madera County has been acquired or successfully provided an offer. Farm Bureau and its member’s legal position –gained through a complex settlement agreement as a result of the settled CEQA lawsuit last spring–has also slowed the acquisition significantly. The land severance sections in the settlement agreement have proved difficult for the Authority to comply with and continue to delay any successful offers.
Since the Merced to Fresno section is the only Project section with environmental approvals however, this area is the only legal place to spend money on anything associated with high speed rail. This is why the Authority and its contractors will most likely rigorously spend where they can in anticipation of future funding uncertainty –a forgone conclusion at this point.
Time will tell how quickly the Authority can produce a new funding plan that will be acceptable to the Court. Based on the sheer political juggernaut this Project has become, is highly likely that instead of a nail in the coffin –this maneuver by the Court will be a delay of death –a inconvenient zombification if you will –of a project that has the biggest coffin in California’s history.
Anja K. Raudabaugh