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Calif. High-Speed Rail Ruling Could Help Political Friend and Foe

For Republican Neel Kashkari, who has dubbed the $68 billion effort to link San Francisco and Los Angeles "the Crazy Train," the appeals court's ruling puts the issue back in play for his run for governor.

A court decision clearing the way for the state to sell more than $8 billion in bonds for California's oft-delayed high-speed rail system could be welcome news not just for Gov. Jerry Brown, the project's main backer, but also for his November election opponent.

For Republican Neel Kashkari, who has dubbed the $68 billion effort to link San Francisco and Los Angeles "the Crazy Train," the appeals court's ruling puts the issue back in play for his run for governor.

Kashkari has slammed the high-speed-rail plan as a financial albatross for the state, created by what he sees as Brown's lack of concern about what's important for California.

"We have many more-important needs across the state," Kashkari said Friday. "We should cancel the project right now and ask voters to repurpose the bond money for water storage projects, which would both create jobs and help us grow food for the future."

Then there's the political angle, which the GOP candidate will probably point out many times between now and November.

"If I'm elected governor, the first thing I'll do, day one, is stop the train," Kashkari said.

Legacy project

For Brown, however, a 220-mph train that can make the run from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than three hours would not only be a boon to the state's economy and environment, but also a key part of the legacy he wants to leave California.

Despite polls suggesting that voters are suffering from buyer's remorse, more than five years after passing the nearly $10 billion bond measure for the project, Brown has not backed off from his support.

"Can we be bold, or are we all just going to shrink back into our Lilliputian faintness of heart?" Brown asked in a meeting with The Chronicle's editorial board in May. "We can build it. We can link the north to the south. We can reshape the land use in the Central Valley ... and it will be a model for the country."

Money in budget

The governor's efforts have been more than just talk. In the 2014-15 state budget, Brown negotiated with Democratic legislators to provide $250 million for the rail system and earmark 25 percent of the state's anticipated cap-and-trade revenue for high-speed rail in future years.

Thursday's decision by the Third District Court of Appeal cleared a major obstacle for the rail system.

Last year, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge blocked the sale of $8.6 billion in bonds for the project and ruled that the California High-Speed Rail Authority needed to have environmental approvals and full funding for hundreds of miles of track, rather than just for the first segment, which will extend about 150 miles from south of Merced to north of Bakersfield.

But the three-judge appeals court panel overturned what it called "the trial court's highly unusual scrutiny" of the Legislature's decision to sell the bonds and allowed work to proceed.

"Obviously, we're pleased with the ruling," said Jeff Morales, chief executive officer for the rail authority. "It affirms what we've said, which is that we're complying with all laws and rules."

Changing the view

But while the bond sale will allow work on the project to speed up, the effect the court's ruling will have on the way Californians view the high-speed-rail effort is even more important, Morales said.

"Our opponents for the past year have been actively spreading a narrative that the system was never going to get built and that we would never be able to access the bond funds," Morales said. "That's had a real impact on public perception. But now the court has said that (the opponents) are wrong."

Attorneys for the opponents, which included Kings and Kern counties, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, argued that the ruling could cost the state millions.

"Taxpayers have no remedy now," said plaintiffs' attorney Michael Brady of Redwood City. "They can only sue after many more tens of millions of dollars are spent on design and analysis."

First target is 2018

The rail authority is using federal transit funds to do preliminary work on the $6 billion first segment of the line, including demolition of abandoned structures and testing along the planned Central Valley right-of-way, Morales said. Work is expected to be completed there by 2018.

That date would also mark the end of Brown's fourth term as governor, if he wins re-election in November. His re-election also would mean backers of high-speed rail could expect four more years of strong support from a governor who already has shown he's willing to horse-trade with the Legislature to get the money and political backing the project needs.

©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle

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