Head of bullet train seeks eco-exemptions

The chief of the state bullet train authority said Tuesday that he hopes to obtain some type of relief from environmental laws that would eliminate a risk that the 130-mile initial construction project could be stopped by an injunction, a potentially growing prospect as agriculture interests in the Central Valley gear up for a legal fight.

At a state Senate hearing, Chairman Dan Richard also said the agency plans to spend the entire $6 billion of initial construction money within a 2017 deadline set by the federal government.

In the past, Richard has insisted the California High-Speed Rail Authority would not seek an outright exemption from state or federal environmental laws, including the California Environmental Quality Act. At the hearing, Richard said that if the project ends up in a lawsuit he would hope the matter would involve mitigations rather than an injunction.

In March, the rail authority and major environmental organizations held meetings to discuss some type of relief on certain environmental reviews for the project. At the time, Richard called it a “technical” matter. So far, the rail authority has been sued twice and lost on a review of a so-called programatic document in Northern California. If it has to redo the report, it could hold up construction.

Under questioning at the Senate hearing, Richard said the rail agency would not attempt to move any of the construction of the Central Valley segment past September 2017. Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) asked whether the authority was trying to speed up or slow down the project.


In an interview with The Times last week, John Popov, a construction expert at authority consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff, said that not all the money would have to be spent by fiscal 2017, because $1.3 billion of state and federal funds do not have any legal deadline requirements. If the authority could stretch out the construction activity past 2017, it might face less pressure in completing the project using what outside experts say is a very fast pace of work.

In more specific comments, Popov said that the authority was considering conducting the work on the final contract of the Central Valley project in 2018, involving the installation of track along the road bed that would be constructed in earlier phases. He said the value of that work was an estimated $500 million.

But Richard told senators at the hearing the statement about pushing back work was not accurate, though he agreed that $1.3 billion of money would not be legally required to be spent by fiscal 2017.