The California Supreme Court today denied review of an appeal to an earlier ruling that allowed the system to begin construction. I reviewed that earlier decision here. With this victory, the High Speed Rail Authority should have clear skies for a while on the bigger picture questions related to the system. Of course, hundreds of lawsuits will persist on micro-issues, such as specific route alignment and the like.
But the one looming challenge will come when the Authority releases its final funding plan in the next few years. In order to cut costs and gain crucial political support from certain local elected officials (I’m looking at you, Supervisor Antonovich in Los Angeles County), the Authority made a number of compromises that will slow the train down between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Normally that kind of outcome is not a big deal, but the 2008 ballot measure that voters approved to launch the system requires a 2 hour 40 minute travel time between those two cities — nothing longer. The trial court will be investigating that prospect in the second phase of the litigation that gave rise to this appeal.
High speed rail backers are in a tough spot: a big infrastructure project like this one requires a lot of political compromise and flexibility. Yet voters baked in a host of detailed requirements in the 2008 initiative. While I understand the desire to ensure oversight and certain outcomes in such a measure, if read by the courts too rigidly, the ballot language will likely make the implementation of high speed rail practically impossible.
So far only the trial court judge has taken such a rigid approach, while the appellate and supreme courts have offered more leeway. But the decisions put the Authority on notice that the courts will be watching going forward. Of course, by that point it may be too late to halt or modify the project. So we’ll have to stay tuned to see how well the Authority ensure that high speed rail stays true to the 2008 vision put before the voters.