Even if state officials can scrape together the billions of dollars needed to fund California's ambitious high-speed rail plans, lawsuits from local cities and opposition groups still could delay, divert or derail the project altogether.
In the Bay Area, cities and nonprofits are suing over issues with the route and environmental studies. In Southern California, the city of Palmdale has gone to court over fears that rail officials will pull a planned Antelope Valley line through the city and reroute the tracks up Interstate 5 instead.
Perhaps the hardest-fought battle is yet to come in Kings County, where officials and residents say they'll do everything in their power to stop a 100-mile stretch of track from wiping out thousands of acres of prime farmland between Fresno and Bakersfield.
The biggest obstacle facing the beleaguered bullet train probably is its uncertain financial future. But lengthy court battles also could affect the project by delaying construction, increasing costs and altering the course the train takes through the state.
According to estimates by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, rerouting the line to satisfy various stakeholders could add hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars to the final price tag.
At the moment, ground zero for anti-high-speed rail sentiment is Kings County. It's a crucial region for the project because federal requirements attached to nearly $3.5 billion in stimulus cash dictate construction must begin in the San Joaquin Valley. If rail officials are unable to spend those funds by September 2017, the federal government could divert them elsewhere.
In Kings County, lawyers already are preparing legal objections to a recently released draft environmental study. Local officials and residents say that if their complaints fall on deaf ears during the legally mandated public comment period, they are ready for a fight.
"Some higher authority needs to put a stop to this," said Diana Peck, director of the Kings County Farm Bureau. "If we've gone through every single channel up the chain, then, of course, it's going to end up in court."
At the heart of the county's frustrations is the rail authority's refusal to consider running the high-speed trains along the Highway 99 corridor. Instead, the line veers off the highway south of Fresno to follow the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway freight line. Then it breaks away again just before Hanford to swerve through farmland, dairies, homes and anything else in its path, eventually meeting up with the highway again near Corcoran.
Last month, the Kings County Board of Supervisors sent Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo a 21-page letter complaining that state officials had illegally shut local agencies out of the planning process and ignored laws that protect prime farmland.
"This top-down, agenda-driven type of land-use planning will not stand in Kings County," the supervisors wrote.
Theo de Haan, who sits on the local farm bureau's board, said much of the anger in Kings County stems from the perception that residents were tricked. "It was sold on the premise that they would follow existing corridors," de Haan said, referring to the ballot language in voter-approved Proposition 1A.
Like many residents, de Haan assumed that "existing corridor" would be Highway 99. Then he found out the rail authority was planning an alignment that would snake through a mile of his dairy farm, take out the house his nephew lives in while managing the farm and then run through his son's home in a nearby subdivision.
"It's not a fun thing for us," he said. "Farmers are passive gentlemen and just want to do their thing and be left alone, but they're forcing our hand."
Aaron Fukuda, co-chairman of a Hanford-based effort called Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability, said he also was surprised to learn rail tracks would run through a 2-acre parcel on which he was planning to build a home.
An engineering firm working for the rail authority caused him "a lot of grief" by initially telling him the property was safely out of the high-speed train's path, he said.
Fukuda's group is working with a law firm to navigate the process of submitting comments to the environmental study. "If we need to get into litigation after the comment period, we are prepared to do that," he said.
A 2005 study found a route following Highway 99 could cost as much as $800 million more to build. Rail-authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said officials rejected the alignment largely because of concerns about curves slowing the high-speed train, as well as noise and other effects on cities along the corridor.
She said the trains will be able to reach top speeds of 220 mph along the freight line and through Hanford farmland -- a key factor in ensuring the Los Angeles-San Francisco trip can be completed in less than three hours.
Wall said the authority has held hundreds of meetings with San Joaquin Valley communities to explain the rail plan. "That process has been going on," she said. "We have extended those invitations." She also said officials anticipated litigation in the Valley and don't expect potential court delays to throw construction off track.
The rail authority is accepting comments on the disputed Valley environmental study through mid-October. Already, there are complaints about the process: Last week, lawyers for Kings County farming giant J.G. Boswell Co. sent a letter to the authority complaining that the current 60-day comment period is "plainly insufficient to allow any meaningful comment on 17,000 pages" of environmental documents for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of the project.
Also last week, Bakersfield city staffers blasted the environmental review in a draft report to the city manager, saying the review has an "irresponsible" failure to discuss potential mitigation efforts if the rail line is built through Bakersfield.
The study will be finalized early next year, opening the door for court challenges over the document.