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Appeals court agrees to hear high-speed rail case

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Gov. Jerry Brown's administration won at least a partial victory Friday in the legal wrangling over California's high-speed rail project when a state appellate court said it would hear an expedited review of two lower court rulings.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal announced late in the day that it granted the state's request for quick review of the rulings by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny. He had concluded that the California High-Speed Rail Authority's plans no longer comply with the promises made to voters when they approved nearly $10 billion in bonds for the project in 2008.

In separate decisions, Kenny ordered the state to write a new funding plan explaining how it would pay for the $68 billion bullet train and blocked the sale of $8.6 billion in voter-approved bonds. Friday's order means the state will not have to rewrite the funding plan unless the appeals court also rejects its arguments.

The court's decision came as Brown's office was responding to comments made earlier in the day by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who told a Seattle radio show host he no longer backs the project and would support diverting the money to other infrastructure needs.

Newsom is the most prominent Democrat in California to publicly split with Brown on the train, which is one of the governor's top priorities.

“I would take the dollars and redirect it to other, more pressing infrastructure needs, and I am not the only Democrat that feels this way. And I've got to tell you, I am one of the few that just said it publicly,” Newsom said, according to a recording of the program provided by the station, KTTH in Seattle. “Most are now saying it privately.”

In the legal case, the governor, the rail authority and the state treasurer initially asked the California Supreme Court to take up the case. They said the lower court rulings prevented the state from quickly starting construction and could hurt the state's ability to finance other voter-approved projects in the future.

“This is a very good development for the state,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance. “The appellate court could have reviewed the two filings and let the lower court rulings stand, but they agreed to take this up on an expedited basis.”

Friday's announcement from the court did not include further explanation. It gives attorneys for a group of Kings County landowners until March 17 to submit briefs in the case.

Two of those attorneys, Stuart Flashman and Michael Brady, did not immediately return messages seeking a response.

Both sides were before the same judge earlier Friday, when attorneys for the landowners asked Kenny to hear separate arguments over whether the high-speed trains would be able to travel as fast as promised in the 2008 ballot initiative.

The landowners argue that the compromises made to bring the price tag for the package down to $68 billion _ namely, using a “blended approach” in which the high-speed trains would share tracks with other rail lines in urban areas _ will make it impossible for high-speed rail to meet with the travel times promised to voters in 2008.

Proposition 1A, which authorized $10 billion in bonds for high-speed rail and related projects, said it should not take more than 2 hours and 40 minutes to go between San Francisco and Los Angeles, or 30 minutes between San Francisco and San Jose.

The judge did not immediately issue a decision on that question.

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