Did Gov. Brown Just Admit Defeat of High-Speed Rail Project? Don't Celebrate Yet.


Is it dead yet?

In other California rail news today, Gov. Jerry Brown has backed off his plan to try to block environmental lawsuits against the state's proposed high-speed rail project. Via the San Jose Mercury News:

The Brown administration on Wednesday abandoned its plan to ease environmental scrutiny of the $69 billion bullet train, backing off quickly after strong opposition from environmentalists threatened the project altogether.

The proposal was designed to prevent opponents from halting high-speed rail construction in court on environmental grounds. It was tied to a key vote in the Legislature in coming weeks on whether to build the first $6 billion leg of tracks in the Central Valley.

But powerful environmental groups -- and key bullet train supporters -- like the Sierra Club and National Resources Defense Council were outraged at what they considered an attempt to undermine the state's landmark environmental law. They spent the last three weeks urging lawmakers to scrap the plan, saying it would set a dangerous precedent.

California is operating on a tight deadline to get started with the project or risk losing $3.5 billion in matching federal stimulus funds. The State Senate has set a July 1 deadline to appropriate $2.6 billion in bonds to start construction on the first leg in central California. Environmental lawsuits against projects in California can take months or years to conclude. On this basis, Conn Carroll of The Washington Examiner is declaring the project dead:

[A]ccording to the stimulus law, California must begin construction on the project before December 31, 2012 or they will not be eligible for any more high speed rail stimulus dollars. Obama's Transportation Department reaffirmed this time limit last year when they admitted they had "no administrative authority to change this deadline."

When I read that Brown was dropping his efforts to block environmental suits this morning, I had the same initial thought: There's no way this train will begin construction this year. But there are a number of possibilities that could keep this boondoggle from the chopping block.

First, it's important not to make the assumption that the people who are suing to block the project are actually suing to actually block the project. A lot of them are likely looking to be paid to go away or to make sure they get a better sum than an eminent domain process might land them or because they're close to the tracks but not close enough to sell their land and want compensation for any hardships the trains cause or for any number of reasons. There could be all sorts of quick settlements of these cases by throwing money at the problem or agreeing to land set-asides elsewhere.

Second, don't underestimate the government's ability to ignore or alter deadlines, or find other sources for the money. I mean, look at how the Obama administration has been behaving. Just because they don't have the authority to change the deadline doesn't mean they won't do it anyway. And even if they don't, and California misses the deadline, there's all sorts of tricks they can resort to. The Federal Railroad Administration has a $35 billion loan guarantee program which states:

Eligible borrowers include railroads, state and local governments, government-sponsored authorities and corporations, joint ventures that include at least one railroad, and limited option freight shippers who intend to construct a new rail connection.

As much as I would like to cackle at the bullet train's demise, it's still too soon to say. I'll believe it when I see the bloated blue-and-gold monster's corpse on a pike during season three of Game of Thrones.