California High-Speed Rail Authority Continues Strategies to Circumvent and Evade Substantive Environmental Review
It’s ironic that a California state agency that claims to be saving the world from climate change and environmental harm continues to pursue strategies to circumvent and evade substantive environmental review of its proposed alignment through the San Joaquin Valley. But the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CaHSRA) has consistently done this as it tries to avoid the costs, delays, and inconveniences other developers endure during the environmental review process.
We feel what is good for the goose should be good for the gander.
CaHSRA has managed to get primary environmental review of high-speed rail alignments to fall under the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and not the more stringent California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Now it wants to take authority from the federal government for environmental review decisions.
On May 2, 2018, the Federal Railroad Administration (an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation) invited public comment on an application from the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) and California High-Speed Rail Authority (CaHSRA) to participate in the “Surface Transportation Project Delivery Program.” This program would allow the California High-Speed Rail Authority to be responsible for environmental review as the lead agency, rather than the Federal Railroad Administration.
Several regional transportation agencies submitted comments in support of the application. For example, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Agency (Metro) noted it would allow “acceleration of the environmental review process” for “a framework for projects to become ‘shovel-ready’ sooner through the more streamlined completion of environmental clearances.”
Big business and industry groups such as the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, and the US High Speed Rail Association also chimed in with support. Union umbrella groups such as the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO and the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, AFL-CIO also support the shift of authority.
On August 16, 2018, the board of the California High-Speed Rail Authority authorized the CEO of the agency to have certain powers regarding environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. As noted in a staff report, the agency plans soon to release the Central Valley Wye Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact (related to the high-speed rail assignment near Merced) and the Fresno-Bakersfield Locally Generated Alternative Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (related to the high-speed rail alignment into the City of Bakersfield).
The goal is to clear the path through the fields of the San Joaquin Valley and the urban cores of Fresno, Hanford, and Bakersfield as soon as possible, without the inconveniences that other developers endure during the environmental review process for proposed projects.