A Sacramento judge will consider a motion for a preliminary injunction that could derail California's high-speed rail project in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Judge Timothy Frawley ordered Friday that three separate lawsuits against the California High-Speed Rail Authority will be combined for future hearings in Sacramento Superior Court. The cases are challenging the rail authority's final approval of environmental reports and a route between Merced and Fresno -- one of the first sections of tracks that the authority hopes to begin building next year.
All three suits were filed within weeks of the rail authority board's May 3 vote approving the project:
One by the Madera County Board of Supervisors, Madera County Farm Bureau, Merced County Farm Bureau, Chowchilla Water District, Preserve Our Heritage, and the Fagundes farming family in Madera and Merced counties.
One by the city of Chowchilla.
One by Timeless Investment Inc. and other companies that own property along the proposed rail line in Madera and Fresno counties.
A hearing on the suits' requests for injunctions has been set for Nov. 16 in Sacramento. A preliminary injunction, if granted by the judge, would prevent the rail authority from moving forward with the work until a trial on the lawsuits is completed.
Attorneys for the rail authority had argued in court documents that a hearing for a preliminary injunction was not necessary before April 2013, "and certainly is not necessary before December." The authority said preliminary demolition and construction work is not expected to begin before next May.
Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, said an injunction represented the only avenue available to "prevent permanent damage and irreparable harm" to agriculture from construction and operation of the train system.
The Federal Railroad Administration, which is putting up more than $3 million for high-speed rail construction in the central San Joaquin Valley, gave its approval to the Merced-to-Fresno section last week. That represented the final administrative step for the state rail authority to move ahead with buying the land it needs for the railroad right of way and awarding construction contracts in late 2012 and early 2013. It's not clear whether an injunction would affect that behind-the-scenes work.
Attorneys for the rail authority stated in court documents that an injunction that delays the start of major construction beyond mid-2013 could jeopardize the federal money, which requires work in the Valley to be completed by the fall of 2017.
State rail officials have said they believe it unlikely that a judge would grant an injunction to stop work altogether. Authority CEO Jeff Morales said that if a judge does find deficiencies in the environmental justification for the approval, it's more likely the agency will be ordered to re-evaluate those points.
That's what happened over the authority's choice of the Pacheco Pass between Gilroy and Los Banos, instead of the Altamont Pass to the north, as the broad high-speed rail corridor to connect the Bay Area to the Valley.
The rail authority first approved the Pacheco Pass corridor in 2008, but lawsuits by several cities along the San Francisco Peninsula resulted in a judge vacating that vote and ordering the authority to make changes to its environmental documents. A revised environmental report was adopted in 2010, but legal challenges prompted court orders for still more changes before the authority voted to approve a third version this year.