Today’s California newspapers report breathlessly that — ta,da! — work is starting on the delayed bullet train. Ralph Vartabeian, Work Starting on the Bullet Train, L.A. Times, Jan. 5, 2015, p. 1A (above the fold). But before you get all in an uproar and rush out to buy some California Choo-Choo bonds, be advised that nothing has been done yet, and the foo-foo of which Mr. Vartabedian writes will be more in the nature of a ground-breaking ceremony, rather that the start of actual construction. Mr. Vartabedian who impresses us as a knowledgeable dude, adds this:
“But the milestone marked by Tuesday’s ground-breaking ceremony also will serve as a reminder of the enormous financial, technical and political risks still faced by the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco project.
Rail officials haven’t yet lined up the funds needed to complete the initial system over the next 14 years. Construction is starting two years later than the state had promised. Acquisition of private property is going slower than expected. And they have yet to finalize legal agreements with two of the nation’s most powerful private freight railroads that are concerned about how a bullet train network will affect their operations.
To say nothing of the fact that Congress is in the process of being taken over by Republicans who — it says here – are likely to be considerably more inhibited in giving away the federal taxpayers’ money to California to help fund Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s California Choo-Choo.
We hear that the California High Speed Rail Authority has finally gotten around to adopting resolutions of public necessity to begin acquiring some three dozen parcels of property for high-speed railroad rights-of-way. Click on http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/12/12/4283181/state-oks-condemnation-for-37.html?sp=/99/406/ So you’d think that everything regarding the right of way and projected rolling stock is all copacetic. Not quite.
It turns out that there is an intramural donnybrook going on as to what kind of rolling stock is to be used and where. One faction wants the high-speed electric trains to run on their own, dedicated special rights of way, while the other wants them to share rights of way (at least in some stretches) with regular, diesel-powered trains. But “the cost of installing an electrical system, buying new electric cars and operating a mixed system of electric and diesel trains is unknown.”
You can read all about this in today’s L.A. Times, in an article by Ralph Vartabedian, Bullet Train to L.A. Poses Issues, Dec. 14, 2014, at p. AA 1.
Our favorite item to come out of this latest kerfuffle is the dispatch that came out in a legislative committee hearing, that “bullet train doors would be 25 inches [that's over two feet] higher than existing train doors on California’s cars in the Bay Area, where blended service is being planned.” So the high-speed cars could not use the same platforms as the existing trains.
So when will all that wonderful stuff come to pass? Oh, about 2028, or about a 15 years from now, reports the Times. The train is supposed to be operating then between Burbank and Modesto, even though nobody we know contemplates much travel between those two metropolises. And what will it all cost then? We fear that not even God is able to predict that, but being the cynical sort we tend to be when it comes to government projects, there is a distinct possibility that by then California will be broke, so it all may be academic.
“. . . [T]he state has yet to start full-blown, sustained construction of permanent structures — including bridges, tracks and train stations — at least partly because it lacks most of Central Valley land needed for an initial 29-mile segment that will pass through Fresno. The state has acquired 71 of 526 parcels needed for the segment, about 13% of the total, according to figures provided by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.” Ralph Vartabedian, Lack of Land Slows Work on California Bullet Train Project, Los Angeles Times. Aug. 13, 2014.
This passage pretty much speaks for itself, but it and the rest of the article may be misleading to lay readers unacquainted with the law and practices of eminent domain. It quotes the former chief executive of the project that “acquiring land for transportation typically involves property owners trying to squeeze the state for the highest possible value.” That is nonsense.
The idea that individual farmers in the Central Valley can “squeeze” the state is absurd on its face. Indeed, the history of eminent domain is a history of undercompensation of landowners. That is why owners who refuse the state’s offers and litigate value — whether before judges or juries — usually make out better than the ones who accept the state’s offers.
As for that nonsense about farmers “squeezing” the state for the taken land’s highest value, the “highest price” is what California law sets as the measure of just compensation that has to be paid when land is taken by eminent domain. Don’t take our word for it. Check out the California Code of Civil Procedure that provides explicitly in section1263.320 (a) that just compensation is the highest price that the subject property would fetch in a voluntary, private sale transaction between a willing but unpressured seller and a willing but unpressured buyer, both fully aware of the subject property’s good and bad features, including its highest and best use.
Why does the law say that? Because in a voluntary transaction the seller can take his sweet time in marketing the property until he finds a buyer willing to pay top dollar. An eminent domain action deprives him of that ability, so the law provides him with the “highest” price that he could have obtained in a voluntary transaction.
Moreover, the state has the power of taking the property before compensation is finally determined, so owners cannot “squeeze” the condemnor.
We haven’t seen the Court of Appeal opinion yet, but according the LA Times the California Court of Appeal has reversed the trial court’s decision enjoining proceeding with the “bullet train” project. As best as we can figure out, the reason for the reversal was the appellate court’s conclusion that preliminary expenditures (such as the ones being challenged) are OK, with the final budget yet to be determined.
The case is California High-Speed Rail Authority et al. v. The Superior Court of Sacramento County, Ct. App. No. C075668.
A recent headline tells the tale; U.S. House Votes to Stop Funding California High-Speed Rail, by Allen Young, Silicone Valley Business Journal, June 11, 2014. To get the story click on http://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2014/06/11/u-s-house-votes-to-stop-funding-california-high.html?ana=rss_sjo_tabo&page=all
The take-away paragraph is:
“The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday to stop federal funding for high-speed rail in California.
“The action is largely ceremonial, however, as the California High-Speed Rail Authority has not requested additional federal funding this year above the stimulus grants the agency is already spending.”
There hasn’t been much to report lately about California’s proposed “bullet train” between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But a dispatch in today’s Los Angele Times avers that the projected cost, has just been increased by one billion dollars.
So let’s review the bidding, as it were. First, California voters were snookered into approving at the polls the issuance of some $9 billion in bonds for that railway, because that’s what their government leaders told them this project would cost. But the first cut of the projected budget took that figure up to over 100 billion. Whereupon our Governor threw a fit, and the projected figure came down t o something like $67 billion. Now it’s up another billion.
So to paraphrase the expression of the late Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
In the meantime everything on the project is in suspended animation until the state Court of Appeal reviews the decision of a trial judge who stopped the project pending completion of this litigation.
So stay tuned.
This is one of those items where a newspaper headline and subheading tell it all and require no comment. From today’s L.A. Times:
“Bullet Train Won’t Meet Target Travel Times, Panel Says
“Regular trips are likely to take longer than the anticipated two hours and 40 minutes.”
But in case you are a non-California flatlander, here is an explanation:
“The faster trips were held out to voters in 2008 when they approved $9 billion in borrowing to help pay for the project. Since then, a series of political compromises and planning changes designed to keep the $68-billion line moving ahead have created slower track zones in urban areas.” Ralph Vartabedian, Bullet Train Won’t Meet Target Travel Time, Panel Says, L.A. Times, March 28, 2014, at p. AA1.
A California Court of Appeal has issued an order expediting the review of a trial court decision whose effect has been to stop the sale of railroad bonds by the state, thereby dooming the proposed Los Angeles to San Francisco “bullet train.” The appellate court decision does not reverse that ruling; it just lets the railroad authority cut into the line of cases awaiting court review on the merits.
Stripped to plain English, the issue in this appeal, inter alia, is whether bond promoters are free to mislead the voters when they submit their proposed state bond issue for voter approval in an election. Specifically, can they represent the public debt to be incurred by those bonds as $X but then go ahead and issue bonds for it that are ten times that amount.
The ruling is covered by the L.A. Times (Ralph Vartabedian, Appeals Court Stays Judge’s Bullet Train Bond Ruling Pending Appeal, Feb. 16, 2014, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-bullet-decision-20140216,0,155139.story#axzz2tV7leS8Z ).
If you have an ongoing interest in the California L.A.-San Francisco high speed train and its misadventures, we recommend an article in the New York Times, of January 6, 2014, High-Speed Train in California Is Caught in a Political Storm – click on http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/07/us/high-speed-train-in-california-is-caught-in-a-political-storm.html?_r=0
It doesn’t contain any hot, latest news but it sums up the status and the controversy surrounding it in an admirably concise way.
We recently noted that the press reports on the recent trial court’s ruling, mostly against the high speed railroad promoters, cast a menacing cloud over that project. In a nutshell the ruling put a serious block in the path of its funding, on several grounds. One reason was that the trial court thought the voters were misled when the state got their approval on some $8.6 billion worth of state bonds in 2008, but it turned out that the project, even in its reduced shape, will require a budget of some $86 billion. As we noted, this is a complex story as are the court’s rulings. So if you are interested in this tale we recommend that you read a more thorough, yet more readable account of this fiasco, which you can find in a front-page story in today’s Los Angeles Daily News.
The bottom line is that those on the side of the project’s promoters are arguing that they can still spend some $3.3 billion in federal funds, and get started on the construction, whereas the challengers disagree and contend that the federal funds may not be spent until the promoters’ financial house is put in order. “In a separate lawsuit, [the judge] also ordered the rail authority to redo its $68 billion funding plan before continuing construction.” In any event, as things stand, even under the optimistic scenario, there would be only enough money to build a railroad segment between Fresno and Bakersfield — the proverbial middle of nowhere in the Central Valley. So we will have to stay tuned on that one and await the outcome of the appeal which now appears inevitable.
See Jessica Calefati, California High-Speed Rail: Judge’s Decision on Bullet Train Funding Also Endangers $3.3 Billion in Federal Funds, [Los Angeles] Daily News, 11/29/13, at p. A1. Click on http://www.dailynews.com/technology/20131129/california-high-speed-rail-judges-decision-on-bullet-train-funding-also-endangers-33-billion-in-federal-funds.