SACRAMENTO, California — State officials on Thursday agreed to drop a request to consolidate all lawsuits challenging California's use of voter-approved high-speed rail bonds, allowing a trial seeking to prevent the state from spending bond money to begin later this month.
Opponents of the $68 billion bullet train project and attorneys for the California High-Speed Rail Authority submitted their agreement to a Sacramento County Superior Court judge.
That allows Judge Michael P. Kenny to begin hearing arguments May 31 in a lawsuit filed in 2011 by Kings County. The county claims the current high-speed rail plans do not comply with the requirements voters approved in 2008, when they passed Proposition 1A to sell nearly $10 billion in bonds for the project.
"It's really in the best interests of justice that we get it resolved before construction starts," said attorney Stuart Flashman, who represents Kings County and other plaintiffs.
Opponents of the project argue that it violates many facets of the ballot initiative, including requirements that the state have all the money in place and all environmental approvals secured for the first phase of construction before work begins. They want a judge to prevent the authority from spending any of the bond proceeds on the current project.
The state attorney general's office, representing the California High-Speed Rail Authority, was seeking to consolidate all lawsuits and potential future lawsuits challenging the state's ability to sell and spend the voter-approved bonds. Its request could have delayed the trial.
To get a resolution about whether it is legally entitled to sell more bonds, the state this spring made a highly unusual filing called a "validation action," which essentially invites anyone with a claim against the bullet train to sue the state. It's that action that high-speed rail officials had previously hoped to merge with the Kings County lawsuit.
Rail officials hope to begin construction this summer on the first 30-mile segment of track from Madera to Fresno, using $3.3 billion in federal money, but the state has said it will not tap more bond money while the legal action is pending. California previously sold $705 million in project-related bonds.
The federal money requires state matching funds. Federal officials have indicated that if the state spends any of the money, it would be expected to match it dollar-for-dollar or repay it, according to the state Department of Finance.
The rail authority has been buying land along the proposed route and performing site surveys, engineering design work and geological testing. The board overseeing the authority is scheduled to vote next month on a bid by a joint venture of nearly $1 billion to do the initial work.
The project eventually is supposed to link Northern and Southern California with trains traveling up to 220 mph.