- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Current state plans for a $68 billion high-speed rail system would not get passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in the time voters were promised when they approved the project, attorneys for a group of landowners opposing the system argued in court Thursday.

In addition, the state’s estimated ridership figures for shorter trips are not reliable, and operation and maintenance costs are likely to exceed projections, the lawyers said.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny heard the arguments in the second phase of a court challenge filed in 2011. Landowners and Kings County sued the California High-Speed Rail Authority, arguing that the state can no longer guarantee it will follow through on promises made in 2008 when voters approved selling nearly $10 billion in bonds for the system.

Voters were told the nation’s first high-speed trains would whisk travelers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two hours and 40 minutes and the system would operate without a government subsidy. It was also pitched as a stand-alone system that would not have to share tracks with other rail lines.

Since then, state officials have made political compromises to ensure the project’s survival, but opponents argue that the changes make it impossible to keep the promises to voters.

Also at issue in court Thursday was how much latitude rail planners have to deviate from the plan laid before voters in 2008.

“What they’re doing is something they can’t finish, at least at the moment,” plaintiffs’ attorney Stuart Flashman argued. He said it is also not financially viable, as the bond measure required.

“It would be nonsensical to say it would run on a profit,” he said. “It’s actually going to take longer to get that distance than it would to drive your car. And it’s going to cost more, too.”

Deputy Attorney General Sharon O’Grady said all the rail authority’s decisions are in voters’ best interests. She said engineers remain confident about the claims, including the ability for trains to travel between San Jose and San Francisco in 30 minutes, despite a so-called blended system in which high-speed rail would share tracks with Caltrain commuter trains.

“It’s saving $30 billion to go with the blended system, which should be in the interest of the taxpayers, the voters and everyone,” O’Grady said.

Flashman argued that the rail authority is changing the premise on which travel times are calculated, such as counting arrival in San Francisco at a Caltrain commuter hub rather than the Transbay Terminal referenced in the initiative. The extra span adds about 5 minutes.

Travel times are a sticking point, as modeling shows the rail travel is only competitive if it can rival air travel between the two hubs, which means it should not be more than 3 hours.

The judge seemed to agree that the ballot initiative only mentioned Transbay Terminal, but he agreed that state officials should have some leeway in planning a complex rail line.

High-speed rail spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley said outside court that the agency is designing and building a system capable of achieving the requirements.

Although officials have been working for years to acquire the thousands of parcels of land required for the project, the state currently has only about two-thirds of the parcels needed for the first 29 miles in the Central Valley.

Opposition has mounted in Southern California, where bullet train officials are weighing four potential routes.

Judge Kenny previously ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, agreeing the state had failed to meet the mandates that it identify funding for the first useable segment before starting construction and have all the needed environmental clearances in hand. An appeals court reversed the ruling, saying the lawsuit was premature.

O’Grady told the court that Thursday’s arguments failed for the same reason.

“The petitioners made the same argument in the Court of Appeal, that the project had morphed into something that didn’t comply with the bond act,” she said. “It was simply premature to determine whether the authority’s design would violate the bond act. And nothing has changed.”

The judge has up to 90 days to issue a decision.

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