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California

On California’s high-speed rail project, combatant Kings County is ready to settle

Setting girders at the Kent Avenue overcrossing in Kings County on Construction Package 2-3.
High-speed rail crews set girders at the Kent Avenue crossing in Kings County.
(California High-Speed Rail Authority)

One of the San Joaquin Valley’s most tenacious opponents of the California bullet train has decided to settle its lawsuit against the project, convinced that the state will operate slower-speed Amtrak trains on its future network in the Central Valley — not the long-promised 220 mph electrically powered ones.

Kings County has long rallied resistance to the project, but local officials say they finally want out of the litigation. They have been discussing a settlement with the California High-Speed Rail Authority since last summer. Now they say they have a verbal agreement on settling an environmental suit and dropping the county’s participation in a suit challenging the project’s use of bond funds.

Under the informal deal, the county will remove itself as a plaintiff in the bond lawsuit and drop its environmental suit in exchange for $11 million, said Doug Verboon, a Kings County supervisor who has recently led negotiations.

High-speed rail spokeswoman Annie Parker declined to comment on the pending litigation.

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Verboon also serves as a board member of the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, which operates Amtrak service in the Central Valley and is assuming an increasing role in future planning for the Central Valley’s rail system.

The agency disclosed at a board meeting Friday that it is in discussions with the state bullet train authority on a plan to alter construction designs in the Central Valley to accommodate slower trains, Verboon said. The joint powers authority is also buying eight new diesel train sets to operate the Amtrak service, even as the high-speed rail authority asserts that it will be operating electrically powered trains in just eight years.

“It is not going to be high-speed any more,” Verboon said. “In reality, it is going to be a slow-speed train. And we need to keep Amtrak alive. It will be the same people, riding in the same direction but on a different track.”

State officials, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, insist they have not backed away from a commitment to operate high-speed trains in the Central Valley and ultimately across the state. Newsom has a plan to focus on building a partial system from Merced to Bakersfield at a cost of $20.4 billion by 2027, though it is uncertain whether the state has enough funding to complete that challenging vision.

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The U.S. Department of Transportation recently terminated a $929-million grant made in 2010 to help build the bullet train system, an action based in part on its assessment that the project will not meet its original goals of a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system that would operate at 220 mph.

The project has always had a backup plan — known under the euphemism of independent utility — that would allow Amtrak to use high-speed track to operate conventional diesel trains if the state could not complete the bullet train.

The Amtrak system is a transportation mainstay in the Central Valley, shuttling passengers at low fares among stops in Bakersfield, Wasco, Corcoran, Hanford, Fresno, Madera and Merced — more stations than the high-speed system ever intended to serve. The Amtrak service operates on busy freight lines, so moving to dedicated track would speed up the schedule, though it could make fewer stops.

Verboon said it no longer made any sense to press the environmental lawsuit, because the rail project is “already tearing up the county.” The $11-million settlement would cover the county’s costs, including having to move a fire station. Verboon said the state would not settle the environmental suit unless the county dropped out of the bond suit, which alleges that the state has violated the terms of the Proposition 1A bond act that voters approved in 2008.

If a settlement is reached, the bond-measure lawsuit would still go forward with other parties, including lead plaintiff John Tos, one of the largest growers in the agriculture-heavy county, according to Stuart Flashman, an attorney on the case.

“It is just going to keep going,” Tos said in an interview. “This was a common effort to stop the project. But now we will become the lone bird on the power line.”

Flashman said he was never told about the informal agreement between Kings County and the rail authority. The attorney said he filed an appeal of a lower court ruling just two weeks ago. He expects oral arguments before an appeals panel in about a year, he said.

The appeal asserts that a lower court erred in November when it rejected arguments that the Legislature acted unconstitutionally in modifying the bond act under Assembly Bill 1889 in 2016.

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Proponents said the legislation simply clarified the meaning of the bond act’s terms. Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Richard K. Sueyoshi ruled the legislation did not change the central purpose of the project.


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