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High Speed Rail Board Looks To Use Prop. 1A Bonds For The First Time

California High-Speed Rail / Flickr

Mock up of the San Jose high speed rail station.

California High-Speed Rail / Flickr

Eight years after California voters approved bonds for a high-speed rail train, the project is seeking to tap those funds. The High Speed Rail Authority authorized the first use of Proposition 1A bonds Tuesday. The money comes with lots of strings and has prompted a new lawsuit.

So far, the project has relied on a mix of state, federal, and local funding, because once the bond funding is used, Proposition 1A sets out tight requirements for the project, from speeds the trains must reach to route lines they have to take.

The idea was to make sure the state didn’t divert the money to other projects, but rail authority board chairman Dan Richard says it also complicates build-out of the bullet train.

"I would suggest to people in the future who want to do something like this that writing engineering standards into a ballot measure might not be the best thing to do," Richard says. "But it is the law, that was the way the law was written, and we are complying with the law."

That compliance has required careful navigation. The bonds must be used to 1) complete segments of track, 2) where high-speed rail can run 3) without state subsidies.

The authority voted to use about a third of the bond money to help fund a 119-mile segment of track in the Central Valley and electrification of Caltrain lines from San Francisco to San Jose.

To comply with the ballot measure, the Central Valley segment will be built so that high-speed trains could run on it, but none will.

"It will not provide standalone high-speed rail operations until it is connected to the wider high-speed rail system," says a report from an independent consultant hired by the rail authority.

Since no high-speed trains will run in the sparsely-populated region, the segment will not require subsidies.

Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, electrification benefits Caltrain in the near-term, but high-speed rail will ultimately connect to it and run along the tracks.

The board argues these uses meet the bond measure's requirements.

The arguments will be tested in court. An attorney for project opponents, Stuart Flashman, told the board he’s filed a new lawsuit.

"What you should be doing is going back to voters and saying 'this is what we want to do with this money,' and 'please give us permission to do it.' You haven’t done that," Flashman said.

Flashman lost a previous court challenge in March. The judge ruled the project could not be out of compliance with what voters approved since it had not touched the bond money.

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