California's bullet train authority and representatives of the Brown administration are exploring ways to relax environmental review procedures on the massive project to help meet a tight construction schedule, The Times has learned.
Major environmental groups confirm they have been in discussions with state officials about some type of relief from possible environmental challenges to the project, which is falling behind schedule and risks losing federal funding if it must conduct new reviews of construction and operational effects.
The environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Planning and Conservation League Foundation, say they are willing to consider small-scale concessions but will oppose a wholesale exemption of the environmental process.
The $98.5-billion rail system would be the nation's largest infrastructure project and faces a daunting environmental review process. If revisions of the bullet train plan force the California High-Speed Rail Authority to conduct new reviews, it may push construction past deadlines required to obtain federal funding.
"It could potentially kill the project," said Bruce Reznik, executive director of Planning and Conservation League, which supports the bullet train but also has participated in litigation against the rail authority.
Dan Richard, chairman of the rail authority, said the state was not seeking to bypass any laws or seeking any exemptions from regulations. But new plans to blend the bullet train system into existing San Francisco and Southern California commuter rail systems have altered the project design. Richard said he's concerned about having to redo the environmental review already completed for the Bay Area.
"It is a technical issue," Richard said. "It is a characterization issue. All I have done is raise it with people and see how we can deal with it."
But environmental groups say the discussions have involved more than simply clarifying technical issues. They say the talks have included streamlining the environmental review process. Given the scope of changes recently proposed for the system, the rail authority ideally would conduct a new, systemwide environmental analysis that could take a year or more, they say. Critics argue that existing environmental reviews are no longer relevant.
"The environmental review doesn't describe the system they want to build," said Nadia Naik, a cofounder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Development. "The blended approaches puts constraints on how many high speed trains can operate. It affects the trip times. The question is where is the analysis?"
The rail authority is supposed to unveil a new — and final — business plan in the next week.
Ken Alex, Gov. Jerry Brown's director of the state Office of Planning and Research, and Richard met March 14 with representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League. Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the NRDC who attended the meeting, said simplifying the environmental review process was discussed, but Alex and Richard did not mention outright exemptions from state regulations.
Reynolds said his group "would be highly skeptical" of any major relaxation of the state's environmental review requirements. Reznik said his group would agree to "tweaking" the process, but would not commit to any concession until they see a proposal on paper.
Brown spokesman Gil Duran said the governor was not considering any environmental exemptions, appearing to leave open the possibility of streamlining the process.
Richard defended the validity of existing reviews for the proposed system. Plans to blend bullet train operations with existing systems will reduce, not increase, environmental issues, he said. The discussions with environmental groups may help head off future conflict, given that the state has already been threatened with lawsuits, he said.
Indeed, a local Bay Area environmental group, TRANSDEF, has joined two suits that forced revisions of the environmental plan and is contemplating a third suit, said the group's president, David Schonbrunn. The group wants the existing route into the Bay Area via the Pacheco Pass near Gilroy dropped because it would disturb environmentally sensitive rural areas. It advocates a more direct route over the Altamont Pass near Stockton.
"The rail authority is getting ready to be three-time losers," he said. "If they keep doing what they seem to be doing, there is a good chance they could get sued."
The blended system was pushed by local leaders over the last year as the only way to politically save the project. But it may violate a bond measure approved by voters in 2008. Quentin Kopp, a former state senator and former chairman of the rail authority, said the effort to integrate northern California's Caltrain and other rail systems is an attempt by local agencies to get bullet train money.
"I consider such a plan a device by shrewd leaders of Caltrain and Metrolink to get money out of the high-speed rail authority and the bond proceeds," he said. "This is not what was contemplated by the Legislature."