Attorney General’s Office Argues HSR Should Be Exempt From CEQA
The California Attorney General’s Office is arguing in a new court filing that the project should be exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act – because Congressional Republicans got the Surface Transit Board to assert jurisdiction:
California’s $68 billion bullet train project should be exempt from the state’s strict environmental review process now that it is subject to federal oversight, the state attorney general’s office argued Tuesday in a state appellate court.
The hearing came after the federal Surface Transportation Board determined last year that it has authority over California’s high-speed rail project, subjecting it to additional federal requirements.
The determination was sought by opponents of the bullet train, led by Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from the Central Valley. It is one of several efforts by opponents to halt construction, but they did not anticipate that a state agency would then seek a legal exemption from the state’s own regulations.
If the judges agree the project is no longer subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, the state rail authority would be freed from a host of regulatory and procedural requirements that could slow construction. Opponents of the project would lose one of their most significant legal tools.
This is a classic case of anti-HSR forces being too clever for their own good. Congressional Republicans thought they could derail the project timeline by having the STB assert its jurisdiction. But doing so means that project review is federalized. Thanks to legislation and court cases dating back to the Gilded Age, state and local governments have very little power to regulate railroads. That power has been reserved to the feds.
It’s not a good system by any means. State and local governments should have regulatory power over railroads. And I’m not wild about exempting HSR fully from CEQA, though CEQA desperately needs reform if California is to have a chance at meaningfully reducing its carbon emissions. But it’s just too much fun to see HSR opponents’ tactics backfire on them this way.