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Walters: Bullet train is test of integrity

Gov. Jerry Brown demonstrated this year that heís willing to skate very close to the hazy line that separates devotion to duty from political obstreperousness, virtually daring federal judges to hold him in contempt for stalling on orders to reduce prison crowding.

That performance gives rise to uncertainty about Brownís reaction to another loss in the courts ó a Superior Court judgeís finding that his pet bullet-train project, as now envisioned, violates the ballot measure that authorized state bonds for its construction.

Sacramento Judge Michael Kenny agreed with San Joaquin Valley opponents of the project that a series of financial and procedural requirements to commit funds from the bond issue had not been met, thus imperiling plans to start construction on an initial segment in that region.

The winning lawyers want Kenny to block any further work on the initial line and ìgo back to square oneî to comply with the bond requirements, but such a delay could violate a looming federal government deadline for using its funds.

In response, state lawyers creatively argue that construction can begin with $3.24 billion in federal grants without using state money, under a waiver granted by federal authorities eager to score a high-speed success.

The plaintiffsí lawyers, however, maintain that the bond issueís requirements would apply to any work. The conflict will play out before Kenny in November.

Nor is this the only legal impediment to beginning construction. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer is reluctant to release bond money until legal underbrush is cleared. A big hurdle could be the California Environmental Quality Act, but Brownís aides suggest that with the project now cleared by a federal railroad agency, CEQA may not apply.

Legal maneuvers aside, itís quite evident that the project, as modified by Brownís handpicked High-Speed Rail Authority to overcome other political and financial hurdles, cannot comply with the plain language of the bond ballot measure ó language that bullet-train proponents told voters would protect the projectís integrity.

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