An effort by Peninsula cities to stop California's high-speed-rail project came to a screeching halt this week when a Sacramento County judge upheld the California High-Speed Rail Authority's environmental-review process for the highly controversial project.
The lawsuit was the second one brought against the authority by Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto. In the first suit, a judge required the rail authority to revise parts of its environmental impact report.
The three cities, along with several coalition groups, had argued since 2008 that the rail authority failed to adequately review the Altamont Pass before it chose the Pacheco Pass as its preferred route for the Peninsula segment of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line. The cities had challenged the rail authority's ridership projections for the Pacheco segment and argued that the agency did not adequately describe the project in its program-level Environmental Impact Report (which is broader and more general in scope than the project-specific reviews).
Most recently, the cities had argued that the rail authority's environmental analysis is no longer sufficient because of the changing nature of the project. Initially envisioned as a four-track train system, with Caltrain running on the inside tracks along the Peninsula, the project has since morphed (under considerable pressure from Peninsula cities and lawmakers) into a "blended" system in which Caltrain and high-speed rail would share two tracks.
This significant change, the cities contended, means that the original environmental analysis is no longer valid. The original EIR, plaintiffs argued, fails to accurately describe the rail system currently under consideration.
Judge Michael Kenny of the Sacramento Superior Court dismissed this allegation and found that the rail authority had "fully complied" with prior rulings, which required revisions to sections dealing with traffic, noise and vibration impacts associated with narrowing the Monterey Highway to accommodate the new system.
Kenny also argued in his ruling that the rail authority did indeed consider the two-track system, even if its original EIR focused on the four-track one. Kenny specifically cited parts of the EIR that dealt with "phased implementation" of the system and the "blended system concept." The rail authority had previously considered the "blended system" as an interim step while the state proceeds with a four-track system.
The discussion of the blended alternative in the EIR, Kenny wrote, was sufficient even if the document does not explicitly set forth this alternative as the finished product.
"Specifically, the discussion of the phased or blended system disclosed to the public, and to the decision-makers, what the changed effects of such a system would be," Kenny wrote, referring to the blended system. "That disclosure served the information purposes of CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) whether the blended system in the Caltrain corridor is an interim step toward final construction or whether, as petitioners contend, it may be the final end point for construction."
He also rejected the cities' contention that the new emphasis on the blended approach should require the rail authority to recirculate its EIR, triggering a fresh public-review process.
The environmental report's discussion of phasing and implementation of the blended system, Kenny wrote, "served the goal of meaningful public participation in the CEQA review process."
The rail authority, Kenny wrote, "adequately disclosed to the public how the project would be implemented and described in adequate detail what the environmental consequences of such implementation would be."
"Even if the process was not absolutely perfect, it was sufficient to comply with CEQA," Kenny wrote.
Even though the Peninsula cities' arguments didn't carry the day, Kenny's ruling could be a mixed blessing for the municipalities. The rail bill approved by the state Senate last fall allocated $1.1 billion for long-awaited improvements to the Caltrain corridor. This will include $700 million for electrification of the popular but cash-strapped system a project that the agency has been studying for more than a decade. The funding may have been in jeopardy had the lawsuit gone the cities' way.
Last week, state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, proposed a bill that would further lock in the funds for Caltrain.
Kenny's ruling is the latest of several notable victories for the once-beleaguered rail authority. Last year, the state Senate approved by a single vote funding for the first segment of the rail line, which would be constructed in the Central Valley. Kenny's ruling in favor of the authority allows the rail project to bypass another potential delay.
Rail authority CEO Jeff Morales celebrated the legal victory with a statement that called Kenny's ruling a "testament to the fact that the Authority is committed to delivering the high-speed rail project in accordance with the law and in partnership with the public."
"We continue to move forward to start
construction this summer and create thousands of jobs in California," Morales wrote.