On Friday, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board ruled 2-1 that the California Environmental Quality Act could not be used to block the construction of the Fresno-Bakersfield segment of the California bullet train. The board nullified seven lawsuits pending against the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
(One had been filed jointly by Kings County, Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability and the Kings County Farm Bureau; the other six were filed by Kern County, the city of Bakersfield, the city of Shafter, and three entities in Bakersfield–a church, hospital and a real-estate development firm.)
The Fresno Bee reports that Board chairman Daniel Elliott III and vice chairwoman Deb Miller asserted that the lawsuits and any attempts by judges to block work on the rail line were rendered illegal due to a federal law that “expressly pre-empts any state law attempts to regulate rail construction projects.” Ann D. Begeman, the third member of the board, objected, writing that the Rail Authority had frequently told the board of its commitment to CEQA and the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The board overruled the California Court of Appeal, which had ruled in favor of Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto and a collection of community groups that California environmental law could not be subject to federal jurisdiction, according to CBS Los Angeles.
The Surface Transportation Board, noting that the bullet train would be part of a larger interstate system, took control of the California high-speed train project in April 2013.
In August 2014, the board decided that its authorization of the Fresno-Bakersfield segment was “subject to environmental mitigation conditions, including a condition that CHSRA build the route designated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) as environmentally preferable and comply with mitigation imposed by FRA in its Record of Decision, as well as three additional environmental conditions. “
The Bee writes that Kings County Counsel Colleen Carlson said, “We are still digesting the opinion. It’s a marathon and we are expecting a long race. But (we) never expected the authority to pull the rug out from under Californians and ignore the very law that allowed the project in the first place.”
The state rail agency and the Federal Railroad Administration had compiled an environmental impact report that was approved by the rail authority board in May, allowing the Fresno-Bakersfield segment to proceed, which precipitated the seven lawsuits. The rail authority then argued that the project had already been approved by the federal government and any injunctions to block construction should be denied. The Surface Transportation Board then evaded the fact that Prop. 1A, the 2012 referendum forming the basis for the project, required that the rail authority comply with CEQA, and barred state courts from enforcing CEQA regarding the Fresno-Bakersfield line.
The board’s ruling may be extrapolated to the rest of the proposed bullet-train line, though no environmental analysis of those segments has been conducted. Stuart Flashman, who represents those against the rail authority, told the Bee that the board’s ruling may be appealed to the federal court, adding, “this could be a case that goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court” because the ruling may be applied to other states.