The only way the planned California bullet train could possibly be exempted from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) would be via legislative action followed by a signature from Gov. Jerry Brown.
That’s because normal exceptions to the law come only when existing facilities are replaced or rebuilt, when projects are too small to affect their surroundings or when projects aim to restore natural resources.
So creation of a park almost never takes the environmental impact report required for a skyscraper or a football stadium. But almost every other significant development, from grocery store to basketball arena to new freeway does need an EIR.
There’s no way the bullet train fits into those categories, which is why an EIR (http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/revised-draft-eir-f-b.aspx) already exists and is now being vetted for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of the line.
Yet, Brown talked for awhile this summer about trying to exempt high speed rail from CEQA, or at least fast-tracking judicial review of environmental challenges to it, the way he and the Legislature have already done for a proposed Los Angeles football stadium and for some urban infill building projects.
Brown later backed off the idea of taking CEQA out of the bullet train picture, a move that was probably a political necessity. For Republican lawmakers who call high speed rail a boondoggle would never vote for anything speeding it along, nor would some Democrats devoted to environmental purity. Why, then, would Brown stake his political credibility on something with only a marginal chance for passage?
But there’s more to this equation than just politics. For if ever a project cried out for thorough environmental review, it is high speed rail, which figures to have major impacts on cities, agriculture, airports, freeways – almost everything in California. Some of those effects would unquestionably be positive – it would take some of the burden off airports and freeways, for example – but California taxpayers footing much of the bill deserve to know as much as possible about its effects before it goes forward. If that means a delay of a few months or a year, so be it.
Contrary to critics who lambaste CEQA as a heavy contributor to California’s allegedly lousy business environment (if it’s so bad, why did the state add about as many new jobs in June, for one example, as all other states put together?), the law is not all that unique to this state.
It was designed to bring to the state level provisions similar to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), passed in 1969 and signed by President Richard Nixon, That law requires environmental impact statements for projects involving the federal government in any way. Republican icon Ronald Reagan, then California governor, signed CEQA in 1970. No one has ever called Nixon and Reagan liberal job-killers.
Since CEQA passed, stadia have been built in San Francisco and San Diego, not to mention indoor arenas like the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Honda Center in Anaheim plus countless office and apartment buildings and condominium complexes, medical centers, freeways and entire cities worth of single family housing. CEQA, then, has not stopped development. It has, however, probably made development better and easier for people to access.
So it should be with the bullet train, too. The people of Madera County, for one instance, should know the effects of the fact that the state High Speed Rail Authority plans to build a two-lane-wide viaduct under its track at one place where the county designated a road to be widened to four-lanes. What might be the effect of creating a potential traffic bottleneck?
That’s just one small example of issues raised by the current plan.
All Californians deserve an impartial analysis of the eventual ridership estimates promoted by the HSR Authority. If they are unrealistically optimistic, the environmental benefits of the project to airport crowding and freeway traffic could be far less than now predicted.
Similarly, commuters in both the Los Angeles and San Francisco Peninsula areas deserve to know in advance how running bullet trains along existing rail rights-of-way would affect their commutes. Commute times between San Jose and San Francisco, for example, would shorter for riders switching to the new system, but what about those who board trains at intermediate points where the bullet train won’t stop?
And what about safety? Could the new line lead, for one example, to more derailments?
Many more questions can and should be raised before this project goes forward. That’s what the environmental impact reports required by CEQA are all about, and that’s why Brown’s backing off the notion of a CEQA exemption was not just politically savvy, but sound public policy.
The bottom line: Let’s get on with a full-project EIR, not merely one part at a time. And the sooner the better. The longer it takes to get that started, the longer it will be before ground should be broken on any part of California’s biggest public works effort since the state Water Project.