High Speed Rail: Detriment or Benefit to the Environment?

While California's high speed rail project will be beneficial for the environment by turning polluting car and plane trips into zero-emission travel by train, there are formidable environmental challenges it must overcome in the construction phase.

2 minute read

June 16, 2012, 9:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Ralph Vartabedian reports on the environmental challenges the high speed rail project faces that will affect the cost and the timeline for what "would be the largest infrastructure project in the nation".

Potential threats to endangered species, diesel emissions from construction equipment, and wetland impacts, are a few of the obstacles the High Speed Rail Authority must confront.

"A wide array of state and federal agencies is examining those effects and, over the next several months, will issue scientific findings that could affect the cost and schedule of construction. Beyond the regulators, environmental lawsuits brought by the powerful California agriculture industry are threatening to further delay work". And the large environmental groups have already voiced their opposition to streamlining the state's environmental law.

Among the most difficult issues will be air quality, which is regulated across eight counties by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The district worries that the construction project would exacerbate already problematic levels of nitrogen oxides, particulates and volatile compounds.

The district is taking the position that the rail construction should make no net increase in emissions. If the cleanest diesel equipment still adds to emissions, then the district wants "financial mitigation" so it can reduce pollution from other sources, a SJVAPCD spokesman said. Even the increased population that the rail project would generate would need to be mitigated, he said."

In addition to air quality are the impacts to wetlands and other bodies of water - regulated in part by the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We anticipate there to be unavoidable impacts, given the sheer magnitude of the project," said Susan Meyer, a senior project manager at the Army Corps of Engineers. The law requires that any impacts be avoided or minimized. The Army could require "compensatory mitigation" under its permits, Meyer said.

Earlier, The Fresno Bee reported on the delayed improvement the electric train will have on air quality. "But any reductions in air pollution won't start for at least a decade, when the trains would start carrying passengers between Merced and the Los Angeles Basin. Meanwhile, building the system in the San Joaquin Valley is expected to pump tons of dust, greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the air. International experts warn it could take years for the benefits of train ridership to make up for the harm caused during construction", wrote Tim Sheehan.

Monday, June 11, 2012 in Los Angeles Times

Satalite image of a bright green lake surrounded by brownish-green land

California’s Largest Natural Lake Turns Green With … Algae

A potentially toxic algal bloom has turned Clear Lake in Northern California bright green, fed by increased runoff from human activity.

June 4, 2024 - Los Angeles Times

Three colorful, large beachfront homes, one khaki, one blue, and one yellow, with a small dune in front and flat sand in foreground.

Florida Homeowners 'Nope Out' of Beach Restoration Over Public Access

The U.S. Corps of Engineers and Redington Shores, Florida are at a standstill: The Corps won’t spend public money to restore private beaches, and homeowners are refusing to grant public access to the beaches behind their home in return for federal assistance.

June 7, 2024 - Grist

Multistory apartment building under construction.

New Tennessee Law Allows No-Cost Incentives for Affordable Housing

Local governments in the Volunteer State can now offer developers incentives like increased density, lower parking requirements, and priority permitting for affordable housing projects.

June 10, 2024 - Nooga Today

Walkway at San Gabriel River Park.

From Duck Farm to Parkland

The opening of the San Gabriel River Park expands access to green spaces for residents in the San Gabriel Valley, especially for Avocado Heights and other park-poor communities in the area.

6 hours ago - San Gabriel Valley Tribune

Oak tree with golden hour sun coming through its leaves on a hill in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California.

Southern California’s Oak Trees are Under Threat

Goldspotted oak borers (GSOB) are invasive pests that are harming and killing oak trees across San Diego, Riverside, Orange, and Los Angeles counties.

7 hours ago - Los Angeles Times

Close-up of natural gas stove burner with blue flames.

Berkeley Voters to Decide on Building Gas Tax

The city could tax large buildings that use gas in lieu of enacting a law that would have banned gas-powered buildings altogether.

June 12 - Smart Cities Dive

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.