California Bullet Train Tries to Dodge State Environmental Laws


California Bullet Train Tries to Dodge State Environmental Laws

Gov. Brown seeks special exemptions for high-speed rail project

Gov. Jerry Brown has twisted himself into a series of contradictions, opposing state environmental rules that he previously supported, and selectively deferring to the federal government – all in the name of keeping the state high-speed rail project crawling along.

Since 2007 the California High-Speed Rail Authority has promised that the high-speed train project would comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, which is often labeled as the state’s landmark environmental regulation. It requires state and local agencies to “identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts.”

As you can imagine, a so-called statewide bullet train may make a not-so-little impact on parts of the environment. But in response to seven lawsuits over California Environmental Quality Act violations associated with the train, state lawyers argued the rail project only has to comply with federal guidelines, which are less-stringent than California’s environmental laws. Gov. Brown and the state gladly deferred to the feds, saying their guidelines have been cleared because the U.S. Surface Transportation Board already approved the train’s Fresno to Bakersfield route.

The federal transportation board agreed, ruling 2-1 last December that CEQA requirements are preempted by federal law. But earlier this month, two Central Valley counties – Kings County and Kern County – partnered with five groups to file an appeal with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

“If there is ever a public contemporary project that needs to go through full environmental review, it’s this one,” Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips told the San Jose Mercury News.

The state is still awaiting final clarification on the six other CEQA lawsuits. And the Northern California town of Atherton also sued the state this month over the environmental effects it says will come with electrifying an existing commuter rail line so that the bullet train can eventually use it.

So thanks to the high-speed rail project, at least now we know how onerous California’s environmental laws are – they’re so bad that even the governor tries to wiggle out of them.

With the government looking to carve out special rail exemptions to environmental rules, Stuart Flashman, an environmental attorney involved in the lawsuits against the state, made a very good point to the San Jose Mercury News, “Why not just get rid of CEQA altogether?”

Because the governor wants the law, except when he doesn’t.

Gov. Brown expanded CEQA just last year by passing Assembly Bill 52, which was the largest expansion of CEQA in eight years. The law adds “tribal cultural resources” as a new category, extending environmental protections to cultural and archeological sites.

During his tenure the governor has supported strong implementation of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 and accompanying programs such as the Renewable Portfolio Standards, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, vehicle efficiency standards, energy efficiency requirements, the California Solar Initiative, and cap and trade. Not only does he plan to extend the state’s carbon reduction goals through 2030, he plans to implement “far more stringent” restrictions such as requiring that 50 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources, doubling the energy efficiency of existing buildings and reducing automobile usage of gas by 50 percent.

Since the high-speed rail project has many legal hurdles to clear and the state still has no clue how it will actually fund the construction costs of the full train system, the lasting impact of California’s high-speed train may end up having nothing to do with transportation. Instead, the high-speed rail project may be what revealed Gov. Brown’s true environmental policies: stringent state environmental regulations for thee, but not for me.

Baruch Feigenbaum is a transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.