The Los Angeles Times reports today:
After encountering criticism from environmental groups, Gov. Jerry Brown signaled Wednesday that he plans to withdraw his controversial proposal to protect the California bullet train project from injunctions sought by environmental lawsuits.
Brown’s staff told key environmental groups that he would no longer include modifications to the California Environmental Quality Act in a package of legislation this month asking for $6 billion to start construction of the high-speed rail project.
Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, had first raised the possibility of some legal protections from lawsuits in a Senate hearing, saying he would rather be able to respond to future lawsuits by mitigating problems than having his project stopped with an injunction.
Brown endorsed that idea soon after, sending proposed language to the Legislature that set a high bar for environmental suits and making the revisions retroactive to the start of this year. That measure could have affected the one suit that has already been filed by the farm bureaus of Merced and Madera counties, Madera County and others. The lawsuit contends that the environmental review of the project’s segment from Merced to Fresno was inadequate.
The Los Angeles Times does not fully report this out, but Brown’s decision not to bypass CEQA essentially kills California’s high speed rail project.
President Obama’s stimulus allocated $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, including, eventually, up to $3.5 billion for California’s project. However, according to the stimulus law, California must begin construction on the project before December 31, 2012 or they will not be eligible for any more high speed rail stimulus dollars. Obama’s Transportation Department reaffirmed this time limit last year when they admitted they had “no administrative authority to change this deadline.”
Fast forward to this June when the city of Chowchilla filed suit to stop construction of the project alleging that the High Speed Rail Authority failed to conduct a proper Environmental Impact Statement pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).
Studies show that the average time to complete the NEPA process is 6.1 years. And NEPA is designed to be a preventative statute. Federal courts routinely issue injunctions to stop projects before they ever begin. That is why oil companies preemptively sued environmental groups earlier this year over leases in Alaska. They wanted to get the litigation out of the way so they could begin oil exploration as fast as possible.
Now the city of Chowchilla could cave and voluntary dismiss their lawsuit. But there are other groups eager to challenge the project in court too. Farmers have already sued to stop the project in state court alleging that the Rail Authority’s plan violates the wording of the state ballot measure that created. If they lose on those grounds, there is nothing stopping them, or other farmers, from later pursuing a NEPA or CEQA claim.
Either way, there is simply no way California will be able to break ground on the project before the federal deadline.