Can CA Gov. Jerry Brown Save High Speed Rail From CEQA?

Gov. Jerry Brown is asking the state legislature to alter the state's environmental law (CEQA) in order to begin construction of the high speed rail project in the Central Valley. It is aimed at heading off lawsuits intended to delay the project.
June 4, 2012, 8am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The high speed rail project is under a tight time-frame if it is to qualify for $3.3 billion in federal grants. Lawsuits invoking the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) have already been successful in delaying the project.

Mike Rosenberg describes the governor's proposal that is designed to prevent the high speed rail project's opponents from applying CEQA to delay the project, yet not exempt the project all together from the landmark environmental law.

"Under Brown's proposal, train foes would have to prove in court that the project causes major environmental problems, such as wiping out an endangered species or damaging extremely valuable land. In the past, opponents on the (San Francisco) Peninsula have delayed the project by convincing a judge of minor problems -- for instance, that the state did not adequately study track vibrations. And Central Valley farmers Friday filed a lawsuit with a similar strategy in mind.

The Brown administration stresses that the rules would apply only to the bullet train and would not in any way rewrite CEQA or affect the bullet train's environmental reviews."

Amy Wong, writing for Capitol Weekly, notes the time pressure for authorizing the state bond fund or risking losing the federal grants. "U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently urged the Legislature to authorize spending the $2.7 billion state bonds by (June). If it didn't he said, the federal government would rescind the $3.3 billion in federal grants promised to the project and look to other states to absorb the stimulus funds."

Rosenberg writes that "the Legislature, by the end of (June), is planning to vote on the exemptions as part of Brown's proposal to spend $2.7 billion in state bonds, matching $3.3 billion in federal grants, to start building up to 130 miles of high-speed rail track near Fresno later this year".

Brown clearly has upset his allies in the environmental community with this proposal.

"If there is ever a public contemporary project that needs to go through full environmental review, it's this one," said Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips.

"The more (exemptions) are allowed, the more it's going to be sought," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. It's a "slippery slope. Once you begin slicing away at CEQA, pretty soon the statute is gone."

Thanks to Kathryn Phillips

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Published on Friday, June 1, 2012 in San Jose Mercury News
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