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LaMalfa: Rulings leave rail project ‘dead in the water’

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

A California congressman says the state's planned $68 billion high-speed rail project "is dead in the water" after a judge last week tore up state funding plans for the rail line. Rep. Doug LaMalfa will seek other uses for federal funds devoted to the project.

SACRAMENTO — A congressman who fought California’s planned bullet train as a state legislator says the project “is dead in the water” after a pair of court rulings last week.

A judge here tore up state funding plans for a $68 billion high-speed rail line on Nov. 26, issuing separate orders that could force the state to spend months or years redrawing its plans for the service that would link northern and southern California.

The rulings came in response to lawsuits brought by San Joaquin Valley farmers and Kings County officials.

Freshman Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican, asserts the rulings by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny should force state officials to recognize their project bore no resemblance to the plan voters were promised in 2008.

“The ruling halts state spending and most federal funds can’t be spent without matching funds from the state, meaning the project is dead in the water,” LaMalfa said in a statement. “I’ll be working in Washington to ensure that the unspent federal funding is redirected to more useful purposes, which at this point would be literally almost anything else.”

The congressman is looking into the various pots of federal money the project has received, some of which “have different strings attached,” and considering how to address each, spokesman Kevin Eastman told the Capital Press in an email.

LaMalfa, a rice farmer from Richvale, Calif., was unsuccessful in pushing legislation to place the project back on the ballot as a member of the state Senate in 2011.

San Joaquin Valley farmers and Kings County officials sued the California High Speed Rail Authority over the project, asserting last year that a section between Fresno and Merced alone would ruin as many as 1,500 acres of prime agricultural land and separate a 500-acre pomegranate orchard from its juicing plant.

The federal government put up $8 billion in economic stimulus money for high-speed rail projects nationally, and announced in 2010 it had awarded California the largest share of $2.3 billion. In addition, California was set to borrow $10 billion more for the project as a result of a bond initiative approved by voters in 2008.

Ruling last week, Kenny rejected the rail authority’s request to sell $8 billion of the bonds, saying there was no evidence it was “necessary and desirable” to start selling the bonds when a committee of state officials met last March.

In a separate lawsuit, Kenny ordered the rail authority to redo its $68 billion funding plan, reasoning that the authority abused its discretion by approving a plan that did not spell out realistic sources of funds other than the state and federal money already committed.

The authority’s CEO, Jeff Morales, disagreed with claims by the opponents that the judge’s rulings would send high-speed rail planners back to the drawing board, saying officials are confident they can address the judge’s concerns quickly. When asked how long it would take, he said, “Not long. We don’t think that addressing that will have any material effect on the project.”

LaMalfa complained that while voters were promised a system connecting Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego for about $34 billion, the authority’s plan costs more than twice as much and would reach from near San Francisco to near Los Angeles.

Despite being promised a one-seat ride, Californians would have to transfer to local mass transit to reach those cities, he argued.

“After spending $600 million, the authority has nothing to show for it but a plan that violates the written bond measure that was passed,” he said. “This ruling is a victory for voters and a reminder that California’s government must abide by its own laws, regardless of what some politicians think.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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