The Truth About Brown’s HSR Environmental Review Proposal
Ralph Vartabedian of the LA Times appears to be on a mission to single-handedly destroy the high speed rail project. His latest biased article claims “Brown seeks to reduce environmental protections for bullet train”. But that’s not what he’s actually proposing. Let’s take a look at the article:
With legal challenges to the California bullet train mounting, Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday began circulating proposed legislation designed to significantly diminish the possibility that opponents could stop the project with an environmental lawsuit.
That is an accurate statement. But this part is much less so:
The proposal puts environmental groups in a tough spot. Brown is asking them to agree to water down one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in history, but for a project they support because of its potential to help reduce vehicle emissions and global warming.
That may characterize some environmentalist reactions, but it doesn’t properly characterize what Brown proposes. He’s not actually watering down the California Environmental Quality Act. He’s not proposing that the project get any reduced CEQA review, have to meet fewer CEQA standards, or be exempt from CEQA requirements. Instead he’s proposing this:
It would “prohibit a court” from issuing an injunction or other stop work orders unless those filing the lawsuit show their damages substantially outweigh the harm to the state and those employed by the $6-billion initial phase of the project.
Again, that doesn’t prevent the courts from ensuring that the environmental review of the project meets CEQA standards. Those standards still have to be met. And an injunction or stop work order could still happen, as long as certain sensible standards are met – that proceeding would harm California and the jobs that the environmentally friendly project would create.
This isn’t an attack on CEQA. But it is a reflection of the fact that the current system of environmental review in California, where lawsuits can be easily filed to block environmentally friendly projects, is broken. Rail projects tend to draw these abusive lawsuits more than most other projects. Curbed LA took a look at four rail lines that are getting bogged down by CEQA lawsuits:
The latest legal news comes in regard to the Expo Line, which is now open to La Cienega, opening to Culver City this summer, and under construction to Santa Monica. A group of homeowners in Cheviot Hills sued to put the light rail underground (which would be cost-prohibitive)–they lost their initial case, lost their appeal, and are now attempting to have the state supreme court hear their argument that Metro violated the California Environmental Quality Act by mucking up their environmental studies, Streetsblog reports. The group argues that Metro considered traffic impacts for 2030, but should have looked at present-day traffic. The supreme court could choose not to take the case, leaving the homeowners (known as Neighbors for Smart Rail) without really any other options, or they could take it. If NFSR wins, Metro would have to do another environmental impact report (a lengthy process) and likely put a stop to work. There are dozens of workers already digging up sewer lines, clearing the Expo right of way, and starting to construct stations, but NFSR is digging in with hopes of stopping all that (for whatever reason). A judge previously ruled that NFSR would have to pay Metro’s legal fees, but Metro mysteriously tells us they currently aren’t owed any fees. Whether that means NFSR already paid up, or doesn’t have to pay yet, Metro isn’t saying.
CEQA wasn’t meant to give fuel to NIMBYs, but that’s precisely what’s happening now. It’s not a good or effective or sensible planning process. The status quo doesn’t produce better projects. It doesn’t help the environment. These lawsuits are undermining public faith and confidence in the environmental review process in California, and the recent trend of legislative action on specific projects is a reflection of the failure of the status quo.
Environmentalists defend the current system at their peril. We need good environmental review and we need to get green projects built fast if we’re to have any hope of addressing global warming and reducing pollution. Jerry Brown’s proposal leaves CEQA intact for the HSR project while reducing the possibility that frivolous lawsuits would slow this environmentally friendly project down. If environmental groups are uncomfortable with it, they need to begin turning their attention to revising the environmental review process in California so that we can have a workable planning process rather than a system that enables NIMBYism and causes project costs to rise, discrediting many good and important projects.