SACRAMENTO -- Critics and many political observers might see California's bullet train project as nearly dead, but state officials made clear Thursday that the train is still heading down the rails at full speed.

Under siege following court rulings, Dan Richard, the chairman of the state's High-Speed Rail Authority, said the state still plans to break ground as early as next month on the largest public works project in California history.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny decided last week that nearly $8.6 billion in bond money California needs to construct the first section of the rail line are off limits until the state proves it can pay for the $68.4 billion project. The only other cash the state has to finance the project is $3.3 billion in federal funds that are also at risk because of the rulings.

But Richards insisted to reporters Thursday that "nothing in those rulings changes our ability to move forward. We're ready to build this project."

Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, compared Richard's response to a scene from the 1978 film "Animal House" when a young ROTC officer, played by Kevin Bacon, tried to calm rioting students by softly telling them: "All is well. All is well." Seconds later, he was knocked over and trampled by the students.

Acting as if the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles rail line's future is not threatened this time around is irrational and foolish, Pitney said.

"A lot of people are politically and economically invested in this project. A lot of careers and reputations are at stake," he said. "The people supporting the project don't want to make any concessions to their opponents for fear that it will stall for good."

But Richard said the project championed by Gov. Jerry Brown was not in jeopardy and even denied the judge's rulings qualified as a delay. He said emphatically that the authority will comply with the orders, but he could not explain how, noting that the board would discuss strategy in a closed-door meeting Thursday afternoon.

"We see a pathway forward with this project, even though I can't stand here today and tell you exactly what we're going to do," Richard said.

Even before last week's rulings by Kenny, the project had been mocked as a "train to nowhere" because the state had only enough funding to build about 120 miles of track, from the Fresno-Madera area to the northern outskirts of Bakersfield.

In another bit of bad news for the rail authority this week, a federal regulatory agency ruled that it must complete additional planning before work can begin in Fresno, where a multibillion-dollar construction contract has already been awarded. The decision by the Surface Transportation Board will likely drive up the cost for that portion of the rail project.

This is not the first time the authority -- which has already spent almost $1 billion on the project -- has played down the significance of a setback others have deemed as a fatal blow.

Michael Brady, a San Francisco attorney who represents Kings County and filed the lawsuit that resulted in last week's rulings, said Richard's comments and tone are consistent with what's he's heard from the authority before.

"He pretends not to appreciate the significance of a setback like this one, but I know he's totally full of it," Brady said. "Right now, they're in a serious box."

The judge's requirements will be so time consuming and expensive for the authority to complete that it may be "impossible" for the state to comply, Brady said.

Kenny ruled that the state must draft a new funding plan and complete more environmental analysis before he will allow the authority to spend any state bond money, which California voters approved in a 2008 ballot measure.

The judge last week also denied the state's request to "validate" the sale of the bonds.

In the ruling, Kenny scolded the authority's finance committee for rubber-stamping the board's request to issue the bonds without enough proof that the action was necessary.

Richard on Thursday also announced that the state will repeat its effort to get the judge's approval, and he directed the authority's staff to begin researching what the state must do to be successful this time.

"We're directing staff to start a new validation action," Richard said. "We're going down that path.

Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/Calefati.