When California voters approved $9 billion in funding for a bullet train in 2008, the ballot measure included the strictest engineering and spending controls ever placed on a major state project.

Voters were told that the high-speed trains would hit 220 mph, get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes, operate without subsidies and obtain funding and environmental clearances for entire operating segments before construction.

The idea was to protect taxpayers from an abandoned project or one that would require indefinite taxpayer support.

Now, as state officials seek to begin construction on the $68-billion project, those conditions have become a fertile breeding ground for lawsuits over the meaning of the language voters endorsed in the ballot proposition.

But the train won’t be able to go that fast.

The unusual specificity of Proposition 1A has been cited by bullet train promoters and critics to bolster their positions. And both sides have put the language and procedures set out in an 8,000-word piece of legislation underlying the ballot measure under an interpretive microscope. One example: Does a requirement to “design” the train so it can travel from L.A. to San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes mean the state has to provide such service?

When the restrictions were written, they were considered unprecedented.

“This bond issue was extraordinary,” said Quentin Kopp, a former state senator, state court judge and former chairman of the high-speed rail authority, when the restrictions were written. “I can’t recall any general obligation bond issue that incorporated legal provisions to the extent this one does.”

In Kopp’s view, the state legislation and subsequent ballot measure were a conscious effort by the Legislature to place binding safeguards on the biggest infrastructure project in California history.

But special interests –a governor who wants the train as his legacy and numerous crony capitalists who’ll get paid big bucks to build it–say don’t get so technical.

Richard Katz, a former authority board member and state legislator, agreed the conditions should not be taken too literally.

“People voted for the concept of high-speed rail,” he said. “You have to view this in the larger context of whether the high-speed rail authority is substantially complying with the requirements.”

Citizens voted for a train that could go from LA to San Francisco in two hours, 40 minutes. If it takes say, 3 hours, 20 minutes, the whole proposition changes. For example:

  • One can drive that route in 5.5 hours, arriving with a car to get around.
  • You can fly there in less than 1 hour
  • Driving could spread the cost over several passengers, instead of everyone buying a train ticket.
  • Even if the train could go the promised speed, riders must factor in time getting to the train station.

In short, it will be a costly boondoggle that suffocates California’s budget for years to come.