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California high court clears way for more bullet train work

California high court clears way for more bullet train work
The high-speed rail project won another victory when the California Supreme Court announced it would not hear an appeal. (Associated Press)

The California Supreme Court on Wednesday cleared the way for further construction of the state's $68-billion bullet train when it declined to hear an appeal filed by Central Valley opponents of the controversial project.

Other financial and pending legal challenges could still pose problems for the massive undertaking. But California High Speed Rail Authority officials said the high court action was a key victory that would allow them to move beyond preliminary work on the first 130-mile section of Central Valley track.

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"This decision reaffirms that the authority can continue building a modern high-speed rail system that connects the state, creates jobs and complies with the law," said Dan Richard, the agency's board chairman. "We will continue to move forward aggressively to deliver the nation's first high-speed rail system."

Kings County and two landowners filed an appeal last month challenging an appellate court decision in July that concluded that the authority basically met the requirements of a successful 2008 ballot proposition approving $9 billion in bonds for the project.

The measure required rail officials to identify all funding and obtain all environmental clearances for the first segment before the bonds could be sold. Earlier, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny concluded that neither provision had been met.

The appeals court, however, ruled that state law required two funding plans. The first, which was at issue in Supreme Court action Wednesday, was intended to help the Legislature decide whether to appropriate money for the project and did not have to meet all the voter-adopted rules, the appeals court found. The second plan, which is still to be completed, would have to meet stricter requirements of the ballot measure, the appellate justices ruled.

The second plan must be filed before the state actually spends any bond money. Some preliminary work on the L.A.-to-San Francisco line already had begun with federal grants and other monies.

The appeals court's July decision also reversed a separate ruling by Kenny that the state failed to follow proper procedures in approving the rail bond sale. They instructed Kenny to enter a new judgment permitting the state to sell the bonds.

The appellate justices warned that substantial legal questions still loomed about whether the project would ultimately meet voter-imposed requirements on spending and construction.

The parties that appealed to the Supreme Court said they were disappointed that their case will not be heard.

"This is a sad day for the voters of California," said landowner Aaron Fukuda, one of the plaintiffs challenging the project. "Our Supreme Court justices have decided that one of the largest bond issuances in the state does not deserve an insightful discussion to make sure we are on the right track."

Stuart Flashman, a plaintiffs' attorney, said a second part of his clients' lawsuit is still proceeding and could go to trial next year. That phase of the suit alleges that the project won't meet other legal requirements involving station locations, a promised 220-mph train speed and two-hour and 40-minute service between San Francisco and L.A.

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