Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to fast-track California's $69 billion high-speed rail project by easing legal scrutiny under the state's landmark environmental law, this newspaper learned Friday.
The proposal, which the Legislature would have to approve this month as part of launching the state's biggest-ever construction project, does not change the California Environmental Quality Act. But Brown's plan, while angering environmentalists, would have two major consequences.
First, it virtually takes away the final bullet in the chamber that project opponents were hoping to use to kill high-speed rail: a court-ordered injunction halting construction.
Under Brown's proposal, train foes would have to prove in court that the project causes major environmental problems, such as wiping out an endangered species or damaging extremely valuable land. In the past, opponents on the Peninsula have delayed planning for the project by convincing a judge of minor problems -- for instance, that the state did not adequately study track vibrations. And Central Valley farmers Friday filed a lawsuit with a similar strategy in mind.
Second, the proposal adds to a growing number of large-scale projects that Brown and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have tried to exempt from the most intense environmental legal scrutiny by arguing that California needs to create jobs quickly. In this case, court delays would void key federal high-speed rail grants needed to begin construction, which would prevent job creation and the development of a greener way to travel.
"We believe that high-speed rail has tremendous environmental benefits for the state, and we want to do it in the right way," said Dan Richard, who was appointed by Brown to chair the California High-Speed Rail Authority. "We believe these are some technical issues, and we're not trying to seek any broad-scale exemptions with CEQA."
The plan is the latest in a series of moves from the Brown administration to ensure his longtime dream of building a bullet train, which dates back to his first terms as governor in the '70s and early '80s, becomes a reality amid increasing resistance. His appointees, led by Richard, have already slashed the cost of the project, moved up construction and offered to spend bullet train funds to electrify Caltrain.
CEQA, a groundbreaking law enacted in 1970, is aimed at preventing developers from running roughshod over the environment. Builders must identify all environmental problems with their projects, such as how it affects parking, soil quality or water pollution, then make an effort to mitigate those impacts.
Brown's proposal was expected to be detailed publicly next week, but environmentalists and opponents briefed on the plan's outline are disheartened.
"If there is ever a public contemporary project that needs to go through full environmental review, it's this one," said Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips.
Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, said environmental scrutiny should be tighter, not looser, for the enormous railroad because it has the potential to "catastrophically harm" resources like agriculture, water and low-income housing.
"It's like denying California's vital resources their constitutional rights," Raudabaugh said. "I don't see how this project can be viewed as being above the law."
Stuart Flashman, an environmental attorney based in Oakland who has sued the project for Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton, added: "Why not just get rid of CEQA altogether?"
But labor groups who stand to reap thousands of jobs from the rail line argue the court battles serve merely as a venue to derail the development, not to protect the environment.
"California is littered with really good projects that have failed the CEQA test not because they were environmentally unsound but because groups have figured out how to litigate," said Jim Earp, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs.
The Brown administration stresses that the rules would apply only to the bullet train and would not in any way rewrite CEQA or affect the bullet train's environmental reviews.
Specifically, the proposal would give judges the power to allow construction of the line to begin in the Central Valley later this year even if opponents win a court case against the project. Instead of halting construction with an injunction, the rail authority could start building while fixing whatever problems the judge finds.
In addition, the proposal would prevent opponents in the Bay Area from suing over a newer plan to run high-speed rail along the Caltrain corridor on two tracks, as opposed to the older four-track plan.
The Legislature, by the end of this month, is planning to vote on the exemptions as part of Brown's proposal to spend $2.7 billion in state bonds, matching $3.3 billion in federal grants, to start building up to 130 miles of high-speed rail track near Fresno later this year. The entire 520-mile system would connect San Francisco and Los Angeles by 2029 if the remaining 80 percent of funding can be found.
The bullet train is the latest mega-project to get special environmental focus in Sacramento in the name of speeding up construction to create jobs.
Last year, Brown signed legislation forcing opponents of a planned NFL stadium in Los Angeles to skip to the appellate court when filing environmental lawsuits.
"The more (exemptions) are allowed, the more it's going to be sought," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. It's a "slippery slope. Once you begin slicing away at CEQA, pretty soon the statute is gone."