Judge tentatively rules against California high-speed rail opponents

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SACRAMENTO — A judge on Thursday tentatively rejected arguments by opponents of California's high-speed rail project that the state is improperly spending bond money approved by voters in 2008.

The parties will appear in Sacramento Superior Court on Friday, with opponents trying to convince Judge Richard Sueyoshi to change his mind. It's the second time a judge has rejected the argument, and the latest win by the California High-Speed Rail Authority as it seeks to get past years of lawsuits. The day before, the authority settled with a small Central Valley town, leaving just one environmental lawsuit against the project.

Voters in 2008 approved $10 billion in bond money toward building a high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco, expected to deliver riders between the two cities in less than three hours. It would be the nation's first high-speed train.

In addition to lawsuits, the project has faced repeated cost overruns and delays. The train is now expected to be finished by 2033 at a cost of $77 billion. The state is far from generating that much money.

The lawsuit ruled on Thursday centers on a 2016 law passed by the California Legislature related to how the state can spend the bond money. It says the bond money can be spent on projects that would enable high-speed trains, such as electrifying existing rail lines.

The plaintiffs argued that significantly changes what voters approved because Proposition 1A said the money would be spent on projects ready for high-speed train operation.

Stuart Flashman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argues the law allows the state to spend money on projects that may never see high-speed rail, given the project's funding challenges.

But Sueyoshi rejected those arguments in his tentative ruling. Construction of high-speed rail is set up to be piecemeal and will "require pre-construction activities as well as capital improvements" on existing systems, he wrote. Nothing in the 2016 law truncates the project or diverts money to a "tenuously connected separate project," he wrote.

The plaintiffs, he argued, did not show that the 2016 law was unconstitutional.

Flashman said if the ruling holds Friday, the plaintiffs will have to decide whether to continue with other, smaller parts of the case or appeal Sueyoshi's ruling.

Among the plaintiffs are Central Valley farmer John Tos, who has been fighting the rail project for years, and Quentin Kopp, a former state lawmaker who used to chair the high-speed rail authority. Kopp backed the 2008 bond measure, but he has since soured on the project's execution.

A different judge rejected the same case in 2017 but gave plaintiffs room to change their argument and return to court.

The rail authority does not comment on tentative rulings, spokeswoman Lisa Alley said.

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