SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The California Supreme Court on Wednesday transferred a legal appeal over the state’s high-speed rail project to a state appellate court, declining to take up the case directly as Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration had requested.
In doing so, it ordered an expedited hearing at the appellate level.
Last week, the governor’s Department of Finance, the state treasurer and the California High-Speed Rail Authority petitioned the court to overturn two lower-court rulings that have stalled progress on the $68 billion bullet train project. They said rulings by a Sacramento County Superior Court judge had crippled the government’s ability to function.
Judge Michael Kenny’s rulings late last year have prevented the state from selling $8.6 billion in voter-approved bonds needed to finance the first leg of construction in the Central Valley. Kenny also ordered the authority to rewrite its financing plan to explain how the state expects to pay for the first 300 miles of work, at a projected cost of $31 billion.
The rulings came in lawsuits filed by a group of Central Valley landowners who claimed the state failed to comply with the promises made to voters when they approved Proposition 1A in 2008 to authorize selling the bonds.
Wednesday’s notice says attorneys for the landowners have until Monday to file briefs in the case.
A spokesman for the Department of Finance did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The state’s appeal to the Supreme Court casts the judge’s rulings as potentially devastating to the project and is at odds with repeated claims made by high-speed rail officials and the governor. After an unfavorable ruling in November, for example, rail authority Chief Executive Jeff Morales said addressing the concerns would not take long and that he did not think it would “have any material effect on the project.”
Resolving the legal tug-of-war in its favor is crucial to the Brown administration, which has been pushing the high-speed rail project even as public support for it has plummeted. The state is required to match part of the federal government’s contribution and needs access to the voter-approved bond money to do so.
The flow of federal money could come to a halt if the state fails to make a matching contribution of $180 million that is due in May.
Construction on the first segment of what is supposed to be a 520-mile rail network has been delayed repeatedly and is now scheduled to begin sometime this spring.
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