REACH­ING A DEAL ON RAIL PROJECT

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY RALPH VARTABEDIA­N

Kings County will set­tle its law­suit against the high-speed rail project, con­vinced that the state will op­er­ate slower-speed Am­trak trains on its fu­ture rail net­work.

Kings County has de­cided to set­tle its law­suit against Cal­i­for­nia’s high­speed rail project, con­vinced that the state will op­er­ate slower-speed Am­trak trains on its fu­ture net­work in the San Joaquin Val­ley – not the long­promised 220 mph elec­tri­cally pow­ered ones.

County of­fi­cials who have long ral­lied re­sis­tance to the project say they fi­nally want out of the lit­i­ga­tion. They have been dis­cussing a set­tle­ment with the Cal­i­for­nia High-Speed Rail Author­ity since last sum­mer. Now they say they have a ver­bal agree­ment on set­tling an en­vi­ron­men­tal suit and drop­ping the county’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in a suit chal­leng­ing the project’s use of bond funds.

Un­der the in­for­mal deal, the county will re­move it­self as a plain­tiff in the bond law­suit and drop its en­vi­ron­men­tal suit in ex­change for $11 mil­lion, said Doug Ver­boon, a Kings County su­per­vi­sor who has re­cently led ne­go­ti­a­tions.

High-speed rail spokes­woman An­nie Parker de­clined to com­ment on the “pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion.”

Ver­boon also serves as a board mem­ber of the San Joaquin Joint Pow­ers Author­ity, which op­er­ates Am­trak ser­vice in the Val­ley and is as­sum­ing an in­creas­ing role in fu­ture plan­ning for the Val­ley’s rail sys­tem.

The agency dis­closed at a board meet­ing Fri­day that it is in dis­cus­sions with the CHSRA on a plan to al­ter con­struc­tion de­signs in the Val­ley to ac­com­mo­date slower-speed trains, Ver­boon said. The joint pow­ers author­ity is also buy­ing eight new diesel train sets to op­er­ate the Am­trak ser­vice, even as the CHSRA as­serts that it will be op­er­at­ing elec­tri­cally pow­ered trains in just eight years.

“It is not go­ing to be high-speed any­more,” Ver­boon said. “In re­al­ity, it is go­ing to be a slowspeed train. And we need to keep Am­trak alive. It will be the same peo­ple, rid­ing in the same di­rec­tion but on a dif­fer­ent track.”

State of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Gov. Gavin New­som, in­sist they have not backed away from a com­mit­ment to op­er­ate high­speed trains in the Val­ley and ul­ti­mately across the state. New­som has a plan to fo­cus on build­ing a par­tial sys­tem from Merced to Bak­ers­field at a cost of $20.4 bil­lion by 2027, though it is un­cer­tain whether the state has enough fund­ing to com­plete that chal­leng­ing vi­sion.

The U.S. De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion re­cently ter­mi­nated a $929 mil­lion grant made in 2010 to help build the bul­let train sys­tem, an ac­tion based in part on its as­sess­ment that the project will not meet its orig­i­nal goals of a Los An­ge­les to San Fran­cisco sys­tem that would op­er­ate at 220 mph.

The project has al­ways had a backup plan – known un­der the euphemism of in­de­pen­dent util­ity – that would al­low Am­trak to use high-speed track to op­er­ate con­ven­tional diesel trains if the state could not com­plete the bul­let train.

The Am­trak sys­tem is a trans­porta­tion main­stay in the Cen­tral Val­ley, shut­tling pas­sen­gers at low fares be­tween stops in Bak­ers­field, Wasco, Cor­co­ran, Han­ford, Fresno, Madera and Merced and be­yond, more sta­tions than the high-speed sys­tem ever in­tended to serve. The Am­trak ser­vice op­er­ates on busy freight lines, so mov­ing to ded­i­cated track would speed up the sched­ule, though it could make fewer stops.

Ver­boon said it no longer made any sense to press the en­vi­ron­men­tal law­suit, be­cause the rail project is “al­ready tear­ing up the county.” The $11 mil­lion set­tle­ment would cover the county’s costs, in­clud­ing hav­ing to move a fire sta­tion. Ver­boon said the state would not set­tle the en­vi­ron­men­tal suit un­less the county dropped out of the bond suit, which al­leges that the state has vi­o­lated the terms of the Propo­si­tion 1A bond act that vot­ers ap­proved in 2008.

If a set­tle­ment is reached, the Prop. 1A suit would still go for­ward with other par­ties, in­clud­ing lead plain­tiff John Tos, a Kings County farmer, ac­cord­ing to Stu­art Flash­man, an at­tor­ney on the case.

“It is just go­ing to keep go­ing,” Tos said in an in­ter­view. “This was a com­mon ef­fort to stop the project. But now we will be­come the lone bird on the power line.”

Flash­man said he was never told about the in­for­mal agree­ment be­tween Kings County and the rail author­ity. Flash­man said he filed an ap­peal of a lower court rul­ing just two weeks ago. He ex­pects oral ar­gu­ments be­fore an ap­peals panel in about a year, he said.

The ap­peal as­serts that a lower court erred in Novem­ber when it re­jected ar­gu­ments that the Leg­is­la­ture acted un­con­sti­tu­tion­ally in mod­i­fy­ing the bond act un­der the 2016 leg­is­la­tion AB 1889.

Pro­po­nents said the leg­is­la­tion sim­ply clar­i­fied the mean­ing of the bond act’s terms. Sacra­mento County Su­pe­rior Court Judge Richard K. Sueyoshi ruled the leg­is­la­tion did not change the cen­tral pur­pose of the project.

CRAIG KOHLRUSS ck­[email protected]­nobee.com

The elavated sec­tion of tracks for the Cal­i­for­nia high-speed rail project that will go over High­way 99 at Cedar Av­enue south of Fresno re­mains un­der con­struc­tion on May 21.

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