Bullet train hit with a double blow
Central Valley farm groups filed a major environmental lawsuit Friday against the California bullet train project, while Orange County transportation leaders urged state officials to shelve the $68-billion proposal until improvements can be made to the existing passenger rail system.
A preliminary injunction to block rail construction planned for later this year was requested in Sacramento County Superior Court by the Madera and Merced county farm bureaus, along with Madera County and additional plaintiffs. The project is already facing other suits, and still more agricultural interests in the Central Valley are gearing up to add to those battles.
“We think a preliminary injunction against construction will occur because there were so many violations in the authority’s environmental impact report,” said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. The plaintiffs say that in their area, the rail project would affect 1,500 acres of prime farm land and 150 agribusinesses, including a major ethanol plant.
The unfolding legal fight will involve some of the state’s most formidable environmental law firms. Farm bureau officials hired Fitzgerald Abbott & Beardsley, while the California High-Speed Rail Authority is in the process of hiring a specialized outside law firm. Until now, the authority has relied on the attorney general for its legal defense.
“High-speed rail continues to move forward, as we do our opponents become more desperate,” said Dan Richard, chairman of the authority’s board of directors.
Meanwhile, in a written critique sent to Richard, the Orange County Transportation Authority board questioned the project’s claims of profitability, its ambitious construction schedule and what officials characterized as a speculative finance plan that may never secure enough money to build even the first sections the 520-mile network.
Board members wrote that the state would be better off improving conventional passenger service and filling holes in current rail corridors before more work is done on the 200-mph system between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with an eventual spur to Anaheim.
The Orange County Transportation Authority’s directors are particularly interested in closing gaps in the existing rail system between Palmdale and Bakersfield, and Stockton and the Bay Area -- a substantial inconvenience for travelers using Amtrak’s San Joaquin service through the Central Valley.
The lack of rail connectivity in those areas forces passengers to take buses twice along the route, greatly increasing travel times. An Amtrak trip between downtown Los Angeles and Oakland now takes at least nine hours and requires a bus trip between Los Angeles and Bakersfield and between Stockton and Oakland.
Once improvements are made to conventional lines and ridership increases, Orange County board members said, it would be easier to determine if high-speed rail is economically feasible. Today, they say, there is no realistic indication that the bullet train would be well-ridden or earn an operating profit as required by state law.
“We are building something new and haven’t proven there is a pent-up demand for train travel.... I find this process almost surreal,” Orange County Supervisor and transportation authority Director John Moorlach said at a recent board meeting.
The high-speed rail authority has already twice lost suits filed by Bay Area groups forcing revisions in its so-called program environmental impact report. Yet another lawsuit has been threatened over the report and if it has to alter the document a third time, it could hold up construction.
Gov. Jerry Brown and high-speed rail officials have been concerned about such litigation, which they fear will disrupt the tight schedule for completion of certain portions of the project.
Authority officials plan to start building the first 130 miles of track in the Central Valley by the end of the year. That $6-billion section, which will not be equipped to operate trains, is supposed to be finished by 2017 to avoid losing federal funds.
In March, administration officials held discussions with the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Planning and Conservation League on ways to exempt the project from state environmental laws.
Joel Reynolds, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney, said Brown is finalizing a list of exemptions that environmental groups may be able to consider early next week. He added that the organizations would probably oppose any wholesale changes in the law.
Brown administration officials said Friday that they are not seeking any exemptions from the law.
But Rich Tolmach, executive director of the California Rail Foundation, said the governor wants to make it far more difficult for a judge to order a halt to the project until disputes are resolved in court.
Tolmach, a critic of the project, said Brown also wants to free the authority from having to assess the impact of the entire line and a requirement that environmental reports be revised when significant changes are made to projects.
In a state Senate hearing, Richard said he would seek some type of environmental relief to prevent an injunction that would halt the project.
Now that the Madera County suit has been filed, Raudabaugh said, such a move would amount to “political suicide,” particularly because the state would be attempting to stop a county from a hearing on its environmental concerns.