SACRAMENTO -- California's $69 billion bullet train will continue zooming toward a groundbreaking next year after a judge on Friday denied a last-ditch request from Central Valley opponents to halt all work on the state's high speed rail project.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Tim Frawley said at the end of a closely watched three-hour hearing that the 520-mile rail line was so unprecedented in size that he alone could not stop it now.
"This keeps us on track," Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said inside the courthouse after the hearing. "It's not a surprise, but obviously you don't know until you get the ruling."
The long-shot request was filed by Madera County and local farmers who did not want the first 29-mile stretch of the high-speed railway to come through their Central California properties. Many of them showed up alongside several reporters from around the state to witness the courtroom drama.
The Madera opponents argued the state did not adequately plan for the project under California environmental law and asked Frawley to issue an injunction to stop all planning. The state conceded the delay would have pushed back a groundbreaking scheduled for as soon as July. And it might have put the entire bullet train in jeopardy because $3 billion in federal funding to start construction is tied to a deadline.
Though the bullet train has fended off several other lawsuits, with a few more pending, this case is the most important because it is the only one that sought an injunction and thus could have immediately blocked construction. After voters passed the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles rail line in 2008, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature in July approved the first Central Valley link.
This, however, is not the end of the legal battle. With the injunction request out of the way, both sides will now battle over the actual lawsuit, with a hearing scheduled on April 19, though Frawley said he was leaning toward ruling in favor of the state. Opponents are also contemplating a federal lawsuit.
"I think this is a slap in the face to our very important agricultural interests," a tearful Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, said after the judge's ruling.
Frawley said to issue an injunction, he would have had to rule that construction would harm the farmers more than it would harm the project. But citing the potential the delays would have to raise construction costs and lose billions of dollars in federal funding, he said it was "not close" -- the project had more to lose than the farmers.
Frawley also said that there was not much point in issuing an injunction now, before the full case is decided in April, since construction won't start until summer 2013.
Barry Epstein, an attorney for the bullet train opponents, argued that spending "tens of millions" of taxpayer dollars planning for the project over the next several months would push the state so far along that it'd be impossible to stop it by next spring.
Epstein also argued the "rushed" environmental plans the state undertook over the last few years to prepare for the first leg of tracks failed to analyze everything from road closures to noise impacts to lost agricultural land. That strategy is typically how similar environmental cases are won by opponents, as a judge could rule that a developer needs to do more studies before starting construction.
But deputy attorney general James Andrew, defending the rail authority, brought huge maps and documents to the courtroom, showing point by point where the state had included plans for each of the things Epstein said were missing.
"It's all there," Andrew told the judge.
Ultimately, Frawley ruled the rail authority did not need to be flawless in its plans largely because the project was so massive -- requiring 15,000 pages of planning -- and also because the law "does not require perfection."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at Twitter.com/rosenberg17.