Attorney General Argues HSR Is No Longer Subject To CEQA
Well this is definitely an interesting development. The AP’s Juliet Williams has the scoop:
California’s high-speed rail project is no longer subject to the state’s rigorous environmental laws after a federal transportation board ruled that it has oversight of the project, the state attorney general’s office argues in a brief filed Friday.
The June decision by the federal Surface Transportation Board—which was sought by opponents of the bullet train—pre-empts the authority of the California Environmental Quality Act, the state argued in the filing made on behalf of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
“The STB’s decision concluding it has jurisdiction over the entire high-speed train system fundamentally affects the regulatory environment for the project going forward,” the state said in the brief submitted to the Third District Court of Appeals, which was obtained by The Associated Press….
The state asked the court to dismiss a five-year-old lawsuit filed by the San Francisco Bay Area cities of Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto seeking to block the bullet train through the Pacheco Pass south of San Francisco. They argued that the route would harm the environment.
A Sacramento County Superior Court judge dismissed their suit in February but they appealed to the federal court, which last month ordered both sides to answer the question “Does federal law pre-empt state environmental law with respect to California’s high-speed rail system?”
The $68 billion project will have to comply with stringent environmental laws regardless of the court’s decision in the Atherton lawsuit. But if the court sides with the state, it would mean complying only with the National Environmental Policy Act, and any lawsuits would have to be filed in federal court….
Rail authority Chief Executive Jeff Morales said there is “overwhelming overlap” between the two environmental laws, and that high-speed rail is committed to environmental protection even beyond the laws, such as requiring fuel efficient technology for construction and a carbon-neutral project.
“Those are things that aren’t strictly required under federal or state law and that would not change based on the outcome of this,” Morales said in an interview Friday.
So this is a very interesting development, to put it mildly. Anti-HSR forces may have wound up scoring quite an own goal here. It was Republican Jeff Denham who pushed for the federal Surface Transportation Board to assert jurisdiction over the project in hopes that doing so would lead to a significant delay. The STB asserted jurisdiction but did not force a delay. And if the courts agree with the Attorney General, then the ability of anti-HSR folks to use CEQA to block the project would be significantly diminished, perhaps even entirely eliminated.
The HSR project would still be subject to NEPA, so it’s not like there would be no environmental review at all. But this could be one fewer hurdle for the project, especially as it moves forward beyond the Initial Construction Segment in the Central Valley.