CEQA and High-Speed Rail Foes Dealt Setback by Federal Board

Faced with seven CEQA lawsuits from rail opponents threatening to delay the high-speed rail project, the California High-Speed Rail Authority sought preemption of the California environmental law. The Surface Transportation Board agreed.
December 17, 2014, 9am PST | Irvin Dawid
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"A three-member panel of presidential appointees has potentially derailed seven lawsuits challenging the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) approval of its Fresno-Bakersfield bullet-train route [see PDF of map] and raised questions about how California environmental law will apply to other planned rail sections across the state," writes Tim Sheehan, reporter for The Fresno Bee.

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB) in a ruling [PDF] issued late Friday, declared on a 2-1 vote that the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, “is categorically pre-empted” in connection with the Fresno-Bakersfield route, which the federal panel OK’d for construction earlier this year.

The ruling is far-reaching. "(L)awsuits against the rail line — filed under CEQA by plaintiffs in Kings and Kern counties - are barred by a federal law that 'expressly pre-empts any state law attempts to regulate rail construction projects,'" writes Sheehan. CHSRA will still have to comply with the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

However, this is by no means the end of litigation by the plaintiffs. 

Kings County Counsel Colleen Carlson said the plaintiffs would advise Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kinney, who has been assigned to hear the Fresno-Bakersfield lawsuits, about the federal board’s ruling and seek his direction on the cases’ status. But, she added, the declaration “practically invites more litigation.”

Sheehan provides the background on the seven CEQA lawsuits and the petitioning by CHSRA to the STB in October. As for the segment the lawsuits are directed at, Sheehan notes that the "Fresno-Bakersfield section is the second piece of the statewide bullet-train system for which the rail authority has prepared environmental impact reports. The analysis for the first section, from Merced to Fresno [see PDF of map], was certified and a route approved in 2012."

On Jan. 6, the official groundbreaking for the $68 billion rail project will take place in Fresno to begin work on "a 29-mile stretch from Madera to Fresno" in the Merced to Fresno section, writes Sheehan in another article. 

Condemnation "of property in Fresno and Madera counties by the state Public Works Board to make way for high-speed rail construction" is reported in a third Sheehan article. Finally! See prior post describing the delay.

Full Story:
Published on Monday, December 15, 2014 in The Fresno Bee
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