SACRAMENTO -- In rulings that threaten the future of California's bullet train, a Sacramento judge on Monday ordered the state to draft a new budget for the multibillion dollar project and prove there's enough money to finish the job before it is started.
Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny found the state's High-Speed Rail Authority failed to follow voter-approved requirements designed to prevent reckless spending on the $68 billion project. Those safeguards are a key piece of the ballot measure voters approved in 2008 allowing the state to sell $10 billion in rail bonds to help build the nation's first high-speed rail line, from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
The bullet train project -- championed by Gov. Jerry Brown but panned by critics as a boondoggle the state can't afford -- can continue for now. But the rulings cast doubt on how the state will fund the project moving forward.
While the authority may still use $3 billion in federal funds to break ground in the Central Valley on the rail line's first miles of track as it had planned, more than $8 billion in rail bond money are off-limits until the state fulfills the rulings' requirements.
The state's quest for a bullet train has been plagued by controversy and court decisions that have pushed the project years behind schedule, with Monday's decision the latest setback. A groundbreaking set for this past summer never happened, and the latest time-frame forecasts a spring start.
But to comply with the judge's order, the authority must first identify a source for more than $25 billion in additional funds needed to complete the project. The federal government will foot the rest of the bill.
Judge Kenny also on Monday refused the state's request that the court "validate" the issuing of its bonds -- a mechanism that would prevent opponents from future challenges in court. In one victory for the rail authority, the judge refused to nullify the agency's construction contracts with Tutor Perini and the state's Department of Transportation.
Dan Richard, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority's board of directors, said he is reviewing the judge's rulings and charting the agency's next steps. He stressed the fact that the judge declined to fully halt the project as opponents had requested.
"Like all transformative projects, we understand that there will be many challenges that will be addressed as we go forward in building the nation's first high-speed rail system," Richard said.
A spokesman for the authority declined to comment on how the group will fulfill the judge's requirements. A spokesman for Brown's office also declined to comment.
Kings County and two of its residents brought the lawsuit against the High-Speed Rail Authority that will force the group to rewrite its spending plan. Michael Brady, a San Francisco attorney who represents them, called the judge's rulings a victory that stymies the project.
"It will be many, many more months before the state can get this thing back in gear, if they ever can," Brady said. "The good people of the Central Valley can sleep better tonight knowing their way of life is less threatened."
Lawmakers from the Central Valley and anti-tax groups also cheered the rulings.
Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, said he was pleased that Judge Kenny upheld the requirements of Proposition 1A and said he would introduce legislation in January to allow voters to consider the project a second time during next year's election.
"This ruling continues to show," Vidak said, "that the high-speed rail project is on the wrong track."
The rulings are "good news" for the state's taxpayers, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, because today's high-speed rail project is dramatically different from the one voters approved five years ago.
"We will continue to fight," he said, "to ensure that taxpayer funds are not wasted in support of what has clearly become a high-speed boondoggle."