High-speed rail project picks up speed

The high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles is closer to becoming reality. California’s Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal that would have challenged financing of the route. The train will be able to travel as fast as 350 kilometres per hour, reports John Dyer in Boston.

The high-speed train will connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. (Photo credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority)

The high-speed train will connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. (Photo credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority)

California’s Supreme Court removed a legal roadblock that has been delaying construction of the planned high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The state is finally permitted to sell bonds to finance the high-speed train. At least until opponents find another way to dispute and block the next stages of the controversial high-speed rail project. The rail line is expected to cost 6.8 billion dollars.

560 kilometres in just two hours and 40 minutes

The state’s highest court in San Francisco refused to hear an appeal of a decision made by an appellate court in July. Then, the court decided in favour of the high-speed rail line’s supporters to allow the sale of bonds to raise the necessary 6.8 billion dollars to begin construction on the first part of a project.

The high-speed connection promises to bring passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes at speeds of more than 350 kilometres per hour. Supporters are calling the 560-kilometre-long line the best chance for European-style rail service in the United States.

Controversial from the beginning

The high-speed rail line has been controversial from the very beginning. It garnered criticism first because its seed money comes from President Barack Obama’s 830-billion-dollar stimulus package that gave the U.S. economy a boost during the darkest days of the financial crisis and recession.

Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has vowed to make the project the centrepiece of his political legacy. His father, Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, similarly created the state’s massive system of reservoirs and aqueducts that ferry water from the state’s wet north to its parched south.

But Brown’s Republican challenger Neel Kashkari believes high-speed rail is a waste of money, going so far to dub the project the “crazy train”. Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs executive, was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under former President George W. Bush and oversaw the – successful – bank bailouts in December 2008. Kashkari has vowed to cancel it if he’s elected in November.

First stage the biggest hurdle

Critics have been trying to stop the high-speed rail line ever since California passed a measure in 2008 to allow the bond sale to pay for the first 210-kilometre segment. Official in the state’s Central Valley, landowners and the Union Pacific Railroad took their arguments to court.

A Sacramento Superior Court blocked the bond sale of bonds last year after the opponents argued that the state couldn’t begin construction on the line without knowing how it would pay for the entire project, not just a fraction of its cost. The Superior Court also said the state needed to obtain environmental clearances for the entire route, not just one segment of the line. The court agreed with the arguments that without an idea of future funding and environmental permissions, the high-speed rail line could tear a path through the Central Valley—destroying homes and ruining farms — only to then hit other roadblocks that delay or keep it from ever opening.

Then in July, an appellate court overruled the superior court, saying construction could begin, additional funding could be secured at a later date along with environmental reviews for future sections of the track. Rail opponents brought the case to the California Supreme Court, but the justices declined to hear it, letting the appellate court’s decision stand and giving a green light for the first high-speed rail line in the United States.

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