The Original Frivolous Lawsuit Is Finally Dismissed
In August 2008, the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton joined forces with the Planning and Conservation League and TRANSDEF to file the first frivolous lawsuit against the California High Speed Rail project. They cited the California Environmental Quality Act as the basis for their suit, but their objections had nothing to do with environmental quality.
Menlo Park Caltrain station, 2009. Photo by the author.
The “Derail HSR” site URL no longer works, but here’s what I quoted from them back when the suit was filed:
The proposed route of the project runs down the heart of Menlo Park and Atherton on a narrow corridor occupied by CalTrain. The necessity of 4 tracks, where there are currently only 2 as well as needing the high 15 foot berm for the rail bed to accommodate grade crossings is of concern to both communities. With a minimum of 100 feet of width needed, as well as overhead catenaries for the electrical power to power the train, the impact in both communities is severe.
But the “impact” was merely of an aesthetic nature. They didn’t argue that sending the HSR tracks through the Peninsula would put endangered species at risk, that it would create air and water pollution, or that it would increase carbon emissions. Instead this anti-HSR alliance tried to argue that CEQA gave them the justification to sue to stop the project simply because they did not like the way it looked.
Since August 2008 the anti-HSR forces have been dealt a series of defeats in court. In August 2009 Judge Michael Kenny found that the vast majority of their claims were “without merit”, though he did direct the California High Speed Rail Authority to make some minor technical revisions to address some noise and vibration matters. At no time did he ever indicate that their core arguments, that the Pacheco alignment was flawed and that the tracks would cause irreparable damage to Peninsula cities, had any merit whatsoever.
The anti-HSR alliance soldiered on, however, in hopes that they might be able to somehow use the courts to do what neither voters nor legislators would do – end the project. Today, however, Judge Kenny finally dismissed their lawsuit:
Nearly five years after Peninsula cities first sued to block California’s high-speed train from running along the Caltrain corridor, a judge has dismissed the case in a long-awaited victory for bullet train backers.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny’s ruling, released Thursday, means that the state finally proved it was legally correct in December 2007 when it decided to send its planned $69 billion high-speed rail network up the Pacheco Pass from the Central Valley, zipping bullet trains from San Jose to San Francisco. An alternative plan that environmentalists and some Peninsula cities preferred would have sent the trains up a longer East Bay route through the Altamont Pass.
Officials of the California High-Speed Rail Authority breathed a sigh of relief as they head toward a groundbreaking on the controversial project in the Central Valley as soon as July.
“This is an important ruling and testament to the fact that the authority is committed to delivering the high-speed rail project in accordance with the law and in partnership with the public,” rail authority CEO Jeff Morales said in a statement. “We continue to move forward to start construction this summer and begin creating thousands of jobs.”
Although they’ve come to the end of the road, still they can’t let go:
Atherton Vice Mayor Jerry Carlson, however, has not resigned himself to the bullet train coming through his town. He notes that the state still needs tens of billions of dollars to extend the line to the Bay Area.
“It’s a long time from now, and they’re going to need a lot more money than what’s on the table,” said Carlson, whose town last week donated $10,000 to a separate Central Valley lawsuit against the bullet train.
At some point Atherton is going to have to reconcile itself to the reality that high speed rail is coming through their town, and that this is a very good thing for everyone involved. Atherton was founded as a railroad suburb, and therein lies its future. Their property values will depend on having reliable, fast connections to the job centers of San José, San Francisco, and even Los Angeles. And a properly designed and built Peninsula rail corridor can provide quieter, safer operations in Atherton, Menlo Park, and other cities within a right of way that mostly already exists.
And of course, this lawsuit is deservedly Exhibit B in the case for some sort of CEQA reform. (Exhibit A, of course, is the lawsuit against the San Francisco Bike Master Plan.) There was no actual environmental quality at risk from these HSR tracks, at least not according to this lawsuit. CEQA should never have applied in this case, and has no place being used to enable lawsuits based on aesthetic values. Maybe once carbon emissions have been eliminated and global warming has subsided. But not until then. And it’s worth noting that one of the original parties to this lawsuit, the Planning and Conservation League, is busy arguing there’s no need to make any changes to CEQA.
This lawsuit is a reminder that some sort of CEQA reform is badly needed. It has to be good reform that strengthens the law rather than carving out loopholes. But after four and a half years and god knows how many hundreds of thousands of public dollars spent on legal fees, it’s clear that this lawsuit was unnecessary, unjustified, and unsuccessful.
High speed rail and the Peninsula belong together. And some day, soon, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.