The California bullet train authority said earlier this year that federal bureaucrats have slow-walked approval of its environmental documents, contributing to delays in the project.
But this week the Federal Railroad Administration, which oversees billions of dollars in grants for the project, assigned authority for such environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act to the state — giving the rail authority its long-sought status.
The approval comes after the Trump administration delivered a sharp blow to the rail authority in May, terminating a $929-million grant that was issued in 2010. The FRA asserted that the state had violated its terms and was not making adequate progress.
The state responded with a suit against the action, asserting that federal officials have “disengaged” with the state and refused to communicate. Federal officials have also raised the prospect of attempting to claw back another $2.5-billion grant for the bullet train but have not taken action so far.
The so-called assignment under NEPA came in a 25-page memorandum of understanding signed by FRA chief Ronald Batory, who signed the letter terminating the 2010 grant.
The rail authority had been seeking the approval for several years, since federal laws changed and allowed state rail projects to get the same authority as highway projects, said rail authority Chief Financial Officer Brian Annis. He said it isn’t clear what triggered the federal approval after such long delays.
“This action is an important milestone for the high-speed program,” authority Chief Executive Brian Kelly said in a statement. “We’ve lost valuable time waiting with the FRA’s disengagement, so I am very thankful for this action and I am hopeful this step is the beginning of a more collaborative and cooperative relationship prospectively.”
The assignment under NEPA is similar to the authority that the California Department of Transportation has for highway projects. The rail authority already has responsibility for performing reviews under the California Environmental Quality Act.
The California project is many years behind schedule, owing to a wide range of problems beyond the issue of environmental approvals. The authority has encountered serious problems acquiring property in the Central Valley, obtaining state permits and approving detailed engineering designs by its contractors.
The announcement by the FRA would allow it to move ahead with completing section-by-section environmental documents for the route from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Until now, only two sections have received final approval, Bakersfield to Fresno and Fresno to Merced.
Under terms of its federal grant, the rail authority must complete those environmental reviews, which among other things determine the exact route the rail line will take, by 2022.