The Excess Express: Muni Spends Money to Get Ready for a Train That may Never Arrive

Now is the summer of our discontent for California's High-Speed Rail plan, the state's very big engine that couldn't.

Last month, a Sacramento County judge dealt the beleaguered project a potentially fatal blow, ruling it violated the voter-enshrined terms of Proposition 1A by failing to pony up $25 billion in funding — for its initial segment alone. Also ordered by Judge Michael Kenney were scrupulous environmental procedures for hundreds of miles of potential tracks, cleaving through land populated by ornery types with lawyers on speed-dial.

In the world of nature, when the body dies, the appendages tend to wither. In the world of politics, things just get more interesting.

Along with the billions of dollars state voters in 2008 approved for High-Speed Rail, $950 million was allotted for local transit projects providing “connectivity” to the future line. Some $61 million of this pile was this year sent San Francisco's way for the Central Subway project. And while High-Speed Rail's future is highly doubtful, Muni has already taken $24 million of this state money to provide “connectivity.”

When real dollars are directed toward increasingly imaginary goals, problems arise. Especially when ornery types with lawyers on speed-dial get involved. In a pending second phase of the High-Speed Rail lawsuit, to be argued in front of the very judge who emphatically spiked the government's arguments in August, the plaintiffs will be taking aim at Muni's millions.

“All these local agencies are trying to get their hands on the money, even though they're in violation of the law,” says Mike Brady, lead attorney for the pair of central California landowners bringing suit. “If we win our case … the connectivity program will collapse.”

Brady's attack on Muni is two-pronged. A declaration penned on his behalf by former state senator and High-Speed Rail Commissioner Quentin Kopp claims that, by altering the current route of the T-line, Muni would actually provide less connectivity to the proposed High-Speed Rail route, not more.

So, per Brady, Muni is spending millions in state connectivity funds to disconnect local rail from an imaginary train line.

What will become of this booty remains the $61 million question. Despite Brady's hopes of recouping expenditures, Muni spokeswoman Kristin Holland writes that “the state has never, in the collective experience of our staff, rescinded project funds once they have been allocated.”

Kopp, too, is unsure if anything can be done to halt the spending of this money, let alone initiate recovery. He points out that, while Brady's suit is against the High-Speed Rail Authority, the state agency that granted Muni the funds was the California Transportation Commission.

“I think the horse is out of the barn door,” he groans. “That money has simply been pissed away.”

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