REVIEW & OUTLOOK

California’s Bullet Train Derailment

A judge says the rail authority is breaking the law. Who cares!

Updated Dec. 19, 2013 6:39 p.m. ET
If you’re in a hole, keep digging and someone will eventually come to the rescue. That seems to be the operating principle of California’s high-speed rail authority, which hopes to bulldoze a growing list of legal and financial obstacles to break ground on its $70 billion bullet train early next year.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled last month that the rail authority had failed to satisfy several procedural requirements of the 2008 ballot measure that authorized $10 billion in state bonds to build the 500-mile train from Anaheim to San Francisco. He also prohibited the state from spending state bond money until the authority complies.

Rail authority chairman Dan Richard dismissed these failures as mere carelessness. The authority must only go “back and put more information on the record,” he says. “Nothing in those rulings changes our ability to move forward.”

But the lapses are serious and deliberate. The authority didn’t obtain required environmental clearances for 270 miles of track. And it didn’t produce a financial plan identifying its funding sources for the first 300-mile segment from Merced to the San Fernando Valley, which is projected to cost $31 billion.

Private investors won’t put up a dime, and the feds have provided a mere $3.25 billion in grants, which require a dollar-for-dollar state match. California has so far tapped about $600 million in stimulus funds for pre-construction work and this spring will have to put up $823 million to get more federal cash. It’s not clear where the authority plans to get this money since state bonds are off limits due to the judge’s ruling.

Only two options exist. The Obama Administration could eliminate its state-match requirement. Or the legislature could appropriate revenues from the state general fund. Both are politically perilous for Democrats.

Public opinion has swung sharply against the bullet train since 2008. Polls show that voters by two-to-one would derail the choo-choo in a referendum. High-speed rail helped cost Democrats a special election for a state Senate seat this summer and a Congressional race last November, both in the Central Valley.

While Mr. Richard claims the rail authority has “a very tight relationship with the feds,” the state’s legal disregard may be wearing thin in Washington. Earlier this month, the federal Surface Transportation Board rejected the authority’s request to start construction on the first segment before environmental reviews are complete.

Despite these setbacks, which make completion of the first 300-mile segment a virtual impossibility, the White House is not blocking the authority from using federal stimulus funds to seize property and prepare ground for construction. On Friday, the State Public Works Board approved the authority’s first request to take a commercial property under eminent domain.

The rail authority hopes that once enough businesses and homes are destroyed, politicians in Sacramento and Washington will feel obligated to ride to the train’s financial rescue. Maybe that’s the Obama Administration’s plan too.

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