The California high-speed rail project is an out-of-control train careening down the tracks. Everybody knows the project is a disaster in the making. But Governor Jerry Brown and California’s political elite are so enamored with being remembered, they are less concerned with whether it is in a good or a bad way. Earlier this month, the authority broke ground on the first planned section between Madera and Fresno.
For those keeping track, the proposed high speed rail line has no realistic funding plan and uses wildly optimistic and unrealistic ridership forecasts. It has violated the language of its 2008 bonds by providing far slower service than initially proposed. It plans to use gas tax funding from an environmental protection plan to help build the train even though the California Air Resources Board found that high speed rail will increase greenhouse gas emissions for the near term.
The past few months have brought one more twist. Since its inception, the rail authority has promised that the project would comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). But after plaintiffs filed seven different lawsuits, the California High Speed Rail Authority asked the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to invalidate these lawsuits arguing that the project only has to comply with federal guidelines that they say have been cleared because of regulatory approvals of the 114-mile Fresno to Bakersfield segment. In late December, the STB agreed with this dubious logic. However, the plaintiffs have promised to appeal and most experts doubt the Supreme Court will side with the STB.
A previous attempt by state lawyers to argue that CEQA was negated by federal approvals was rejected by a Sacramento appeals court. Further, the state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a bullet train case in a similar case.
The authority’s spokesman says this isn’t an attempt to get around CEQA just an attempt to “clarify” matters. But it is clear the only reason the authority does not want to go through CEQA is because it will slow down of potentially cancel construction of the rail line.
The federal Surface Transportation Board consists of three appointees of President Obama who has strongly supported rail with earmarked high-speed rail funding and Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. So the authority is making an end-run around the law which they ideologically support to get the train built. And they are turning to their political friends in the federal bureaucracy to ensure they can get away with ignoring the law. How many laws and rules will California politicians ignore to get this train built?