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Calif. bullet train in limbo after legal setbacks

SACRAMENTO — Officials overseeing California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project have taken pains in recent weeks to assure the public that construction plans are moving ahead, characterizing a series of recent setbacks as ‘‘a bump in the road.”

That optimism comes despite recent court rulings against the project, creating confusion about the bullet train’s prospects.

A Sacramento County judge rescinded the rail authority’s funding plan, forced it to show how it will pay for the first 300 miles of construction, and rejected a request from the authority that would allow the state treasurer to sell $8.6 billion in bonds.

But members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board seemed undaunted during their December meeting. They praised staff for filling key positions at the agency and pointed to a nearly $1 billion construction contract signed in 2013 as evidence of progress.

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‘‘They just paint a rosy picture, charge ahead, without acknowledging they have any serious issues to deal with or addressing how they’re going to deal with it,” said Michael Brady, one of the attorneys representing a group of Kings County residents who sued the state, leading to the judge’s rulings.

Challenges are also mounting outside the courts.

Republicans in Congress have vowed to block any further funding, questioning the state’s spending of $3.3 billion in federal funds that are supposed to be matched by the state.

Rail authority board chairman Dan Richard has said California has an agreement with federal officials allowing it to spend the federal money first while the state bond money is in limbo. Richard said officials hope to have shovels in the ground in the Central Valley in January or February and projected that the federal money might last through late spring.

‘‘The state cannot sell bonds in the current legal environment,” said Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who sought the so-called validation lawsuit the state filed to seek blanket authority to sell the bonds, which the judge rejected.

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What will happen next is uncertain, after Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled that the rail plan no longer complies with the promises made to state voters when they approved $10 billion in rail bonds in 2008.

That ballot measure promised that the state would have all the funding in hand for the first usable segment of rail and have all the necessary environmental clearances before construction started. Kenny said it failed to do that.

Rail officials appear poised to deliver a new funding plan to their own high-speed rail board for approval, while the plaintiffs who sued believe the plan needs to go before the state Legislature, which approved a 2012 funding bill that squeaked through the Senate with only one vote to spare.