Lawsuits could stall high-speed rail plans

In the Bay Area, cities and nonprofits are suing over issues with the route and environmental studies. In Southern California, the city of Palmdale has gone to court over fears that rail officials will pull a planned Antelope Valley line through the city and reroute the tracks up I-5 instead.

Perhaps the hardest-fought battle is yet to come in the Central Valley, where Kings County officials and residents say they'll do everything in their power to stop a 100-mile stretch of track from wiping out thousands of acres of prime farmland between Fresno and Bakersfield.

The biggest obstacle facing the beleaguered bullet train is probably its uncertain financial future. But lengthy court battles also could affect the project by delaying construction, increasing costs and altering the course the train takes through the state.

According to estimates by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, rerouting the high-speed line to satisfy various stakeholders could add hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars to the final price tag.

At the moment, ground zero for anti-high-speed rail sentiment is Kings County. It's a crucial region for the project because federal requirements attached to nearly $3.5 billion in stimulus cash dictate construction must begin in the valley. If rail officials are unable to spend those funds by September 2017, the federal government could divert them elsewhere.

In Kings County, lawyers already are preparing legal objections to a recently released draft environmental study. Local officials and residents say that if their complaints fall on deaf ears during the legally mandated public comment period, they are ready for a fight.

"Some higher authority needs to put a stop to this," said Diana Peck, director of the Kings County Farm Bureau. "If we've gone through every single channel up the chain, then of course it's going to end up in court."

At the heart of the county's frustrations is the rail authority's refusal to consider running the high-speed trains along the Highway 99 corridor. Instead, the line veers off the highway south of Fresno to follow the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway freight line. Then it breaks away again just before Hanford to swerve through farmland, dairies, homes and anything else in its path, eventually meeting up with the highway again near Corcoran.

Last month, the Kings County Board of Supervisors sent Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo a 21-page letter complaining that state officials had illegally shut local agencies out of the planning process and ignored laws that protect prime farmland. "This top-down, agenda-driven type of land use planning will not stand in Kings County," the supervisors wrote.

Theo de Haan, who sits on the local farm bureau's board, said much of the anger in Kings County stems from the perception that residents were tricked. "It was sold on the premise that they would follow existing corridors," de Haan said, referring to the ballot language in voter-approved Proposition 1A.

Like many residents, De Haan assumed that "existing corridor" would be Highway 99. Then he found out the rail authority was planning an alignment that would snake through a mile of his dairy farm, take out the house his nephew lives in while managing the farm and then run through his son's home in a nearby subdivision.

"It's not a fun thing for us," he said. "Farmers are passive gentlemen and just want to do their thing and be left alone, but they're forcing our hand."

Aaron Fukuda, co-chairman of a Hanford-based effort called Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability, said he also was surprised to learn rail tracks would run through a 2-acre parcel on which he was planning to build a home.

An engineering firm working for the rail authority caused him "a lot of grief" by initially telling him the property was safely out of the high-speed train's path, he said. Fukuda's group is working with a law firm to navigate the process of submitting comments to the environmental study. "If we need to get into litigation after the comment period, we are prepared to do that," he said.

A 2005 study found a route following Highway 99 could cost as much as $800 million more to build. Rail authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said officials rejected the alignment largely because of concerns about curves slowing the high-speed train, as well as noise and other effects on cities along the corridor. She said the trains will be able to reach top speeds of 220 mph along the freight line and through Hanford farmland -- a key factor in ensuring the Los Angeles-San Francisco trip can be completed in less than three hours.

Wall added that the authority has held hundreds of meetings with Central Valley communities to explain the rail plan. "That process has been going on," she said. "We have extended those invitations." She also said officials anticipated litigation in the Central Valley and don't expect potential court delays to throw construction off track.

The rail authority is accepting comments on the disputed Central Valley environmental study through mid-October. The study will be finalized early next year, opening the door for court challenges over the document.

Lawsuits on the San Francisco Peninsula

If rail officials are able to overcome the fierce opposition in Kings County and secure funds to continue with construction beyond the flatlands of the Central Valley, they'll face a similar fight on the San Francisco Peninsula. There, a coalition of cities and citizens groups has taken the rail authority to court twice over environmental studies of the route linking the Central Valley to the Bay Area.

The petitioners in the first lawsuit won, forcing the authority to redo its environmental study for that segment. The most recent suit, filed last year, challenges the revised study and also accuses the rail authority of using faulty ridership estimates to make its preferred route seem more attractive.

To connect the Central Valley to the Bay Area, rail officials want to run tracks over the Pacheco Pass, through Gilroy to San Jose, and up the Peninsula to San Francisco.

Fearing noise and blight from elevated tracks, the plaintiffs -- which include the cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, as well as several nonprofit groups – argue that a better option would be to route the train over the Altamont Pass, farther north, and along I-580 through the East Bay.

There, the line would split, running across the bay to San Francisco and southwest to San Jose. A 2007 study commissioned by the rail authority found a route using the Pacheco Pass would draw about 6 million more riders a year.

Stuart Flashman, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the firm hired by the authority used a skewed ridership model that unfairly penalized the Altamont route with lower numbers. "It's not realistic," Flashman said of the study.

In court documents, the rail authority, represented by the state attorney general's office, acknowledged a UC Berkeley peer review had found the ridership model "unreliable for policy analysis" but defended the study as valid and characterized the peer review as "a disagreement among experts."

The authority said the Altamont alternative also would be more difficult because it would require building a bridge across the bay. If the lawsuit is successful, the rail authority will have to redo its environmental study for a third time, reconsidering the route and funding projections for that segment.

While the study remains in legal limbo, the court has allowed rail officials to continue with a second, more-detailed study that typically would be done only after the first was finalized. A construction date has not been set.

Antelope Valley fights to keep line

It's a much different story down south in Palmdale, where local officials have fought not to prevent the intrusion of high-speed trains, but to keep a rail station in town. In a lawsuit filed in federal court in July, city officials said they were promised a high-speed rail station as part of an Antelope Valley line that would connect Los Angeles to the Central Valley.

They asked the judge to halt a study of an alternative route through the Grapevine. Rail officials rejected the Grapevine route in 2005, saying it was too expensive and fraught with seismic and environmental perils.

The judge dismissed the lawsuit last week, agreeing with rail officials that the issue was outside the jurisdiction of a federal court. But city officials could continue the legal battle by refiling in state court.

Palmdale maintains it's illegal for rail officials to spend state or federal funds to study a route that was not presented as a possibility to voters in 2008, or to federal officials who awarded stimulus funds for the project.

Rail officials say the Antelope Valley route turned out to be more seismically problematic than initially thought and would require extensive tunneling and viaducts through the mountains.

Rail spokeswoman Wall said the authority hasn't abandoned the Antelope Valley line but is legally obligated to study all possible routes. "If the Grapevine is now a feasible alternative in comparison with what we know about Antelope Valley, we have a responsibility to study that," she said.

Rail officials now predict the Antelope Valley line could cost billions more to build. Even if Palmdale is able to force rail officials to keep the city in the high-speed rail plan, the project might never get that far.

Next month, the rail authority will present an updated business plan to an increasingly skeptical Legislature. To get lawmakers and state Treasurer Bill Lockyer to approve the sale of bonds, rail officials must convince them that the project is still viable despite the funding concerns and local opposition.

The Central Valley line is now expected to cost between $6.2 billion and $7.2 billion -- more than double a 2009 estimate. With lawmaker approval, the authority would have access to $6.3 billion in state bond funds and federal stimulus. Roughly half of that comes from $9.95 billion in bond money voters approved for the statewide project in 2008.

While not unusual for megaprojects like the bullet train, the cost overruns are a red flag for some lawmakers. "There's not nearly enough money to do this," said state Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Oroville, who has written a bill to freeze high-speed rail funding. "The numbers just keep getting farther from what voters were sold."

LaMalfa wants to take the proposition back to voters next June. Another bill from state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, would oust the current rail authority board members and replace them with new appointees at the start of the year.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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