High Speed Rail Authority Says Ruling Won’t Affect Timeline or Funding

CHSR_10_SouthBay_A_05_3600_2025.jpgHigh Speed Rail as envisioned running along the San Francisco Bay. Image: California High Speed Rail Authority.

A Sacramento judge ruled this week that the California High Speed Rail Authority failed to provide an adequate description of the San Francisco to Los Angeles high speed train project in its Environmental Impact Report. Critics of the project hailed it as an important victory, but the fine print of the decision may leave less room for their celebration, as the court rejected contentions about the project’s route, biological impacts, and ability to induce sprawl in the Central Valley.

The court found that the plaintiffs – the Town of Atherton, the City Menlo Park, the Planning and Conservation League, Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, California Rail Foundation, and Bayrail Alliance – had two major legitimate complaints. The Authority failed to recirculate the Final Project EIR after learning that the Union Pacific Railroad would not allow high speed trains to share its right of way from San Jose to Gilroy, which means the train will have an impact either on the adjacent Monterey Highway or residents and businesses along the route, the court ruled.

The ruling, by Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny, also found that the Authority’s claim "that mitigation strategies will reduce the vibration impact to a less-than-significant level is not supported by substantial evidence." On related complaints about noise and visual impact, the court ruled in the Authority’s favor.

Stuart Flashman, the Oakland-based land-use attorney representing the plaintiffs, told The Almanac newspaper the Authority is "back to the drawing board" as a result of the ruling. In fact, the ruling may not give critics of high-speed rail much of a wedge.

"The assessment of our lawyers," said Authority Executive Director Mehdi Morshed, "is that the court decision is a minor issue and that it’s not going to impact our schedule, that we can continue our work and not it’s going to have an impact on our project-level work or our federal funding request."

Though the judge has yet to determine what the Authority will need to do to remedy the situation, Morshed does not anticipate it will set the project back. Even before the ruling, the Authority had "accepted the fact that we can’t use the UP right of way," said Morshed. "We’re proceeding accordingly. So the fact that they’re saying, ‘Well, how are you going to handle UP right of way,’ is something we’ve been doing, so it’s not something new."

The ruling is more problematic for proponents of alternative alignments along the Altamont Pass, I-280, and US-101, since the court sided with the Authority in their review of alternative routes. "We actually think it’s a very, very good court ruling," said Morshed. "If you read it, the judge agreed with practically everything we did. All the issues that the people who sued us raised, the judge found them to be invalid. So, it’s just these two issues that the judge said we need to do more work on, and we’ll be happy to do that. But fundamentally, our big fundamental issue is, the judge agreed with us."

"For those who wanted us to basically give up on Pacheco and go back and look at Altamont, the judge didn’t give them that."

Given how contentious the project has been with some Peninsula residents, of course, this is not likely to be the last skirmish. But for now, the Authority doesn’t view the ruling as the major setback portrayed in some newspaper headlines this morning.

  • patrick

    Despite the flawed news reports out there, I actually read the court resolution and came to the same conclusion, despite the minor items that were found in favor of the plaintiff (anti-HSR) this is a pretty clear win for the HSR project and California.

    Still waiting for final word from the judge on what steps will be required of CHSRA, but I’m very hopeful that there will be minimal impact on the progress of the HSR project.

  • joseph

    Executive director Morshed can put whatever spin on this ruling he wants; however, when the final ruling comes out he is going to be very much disappointed.

    For sure a new EIR will have to be prepared since the SJ to Gilroy route will have to be restudied. This will take at least 1 year During this time, all work on the project level EIR for the Bay Area must stop, since any work done there would have been prejudiced by not having the under lying program level EIR finished and certified.

    All this points to the poor planning that has been done thus far, and has led some real High Speed Rail experts to conclude this project ranks number one as being the worst designed project of its kind ever.

    This is what you get when you have politicians, rather than knowledgeable professionals designing a system.

  • Glen

    The system is going to get built as it should. This 140 year old railroad is out of date and will be upgraded with grade free crossings and clean electric power.There is nothing wrong with this project..Stop the backward
    thinking and your auto brain only culture

  • bikerider

    Even worse than car-heads are the “build-it-at-any-cost” “we-can-fix-design-problems-later” foamers. A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we are talking real money.

    Tell me, Glen, what other worthwhile transit projects would you cancel in order to pay for Diridon’s monument to himself?

  • In my opinion, we need to build enough transit infrastructure to transform American cities as dramatically during the first half of the twenty-first century as freeways transformed them during the second half of the twentieth century.

    There is sentiment in Washington for large increases of spending on high-speed rail and on other transit. No need to cancel other transit projects to pay for high-speed rail. We can have enough funding for both, if environmentalists move beyond our usual stance of opposition and realize that this is a time when we can have huge positive accomplishments by transforming energy infrastructure and transforming transporation infrastructure.

  • I read something about Port officials worrying about heights with an electrified Caltrain and HSR prohibiting shipment of cars on the railroad tracks from the piers of San Francisco … anyone know more about this? Is this another hurdle or just noise?

  • Glen

    None.. they all should be funded and much more so.. and gas tax raised so bike lanes and transit can make a much greater impact on life here..BTW I have no car and use trasnit all the time.do you? Another thing I find about people that are against this project seems to be personal reasons against Kopp/Diridon..

  • patrick

    @jamie:

    For a detailed review of freight on the peninsula check out the following two links:

    http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2009/03/freight-on-peninsula.html
    http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2009/08/effect-of-heavy-freight.html

    In summary, yes the port wants the tunnels to be made larger and the wires to be higher. There is very little advantage to that as there are only 3 trains a day, with very little demand for more. It would add $100s of millions to the project, a complete waste in my opinion.

    @bikerider

    Diridon station is going to be built at Santa Clara County & San Jose Cities expense, the stations are the responsibility of the community surrounding if they want more than the bare bones, just like SF is paying for Transbay Terminal. It’s outside the scope of HSR.

    As far as what I would cancel I would cancel all highway and airport expansion projects. Are you aware that the HSR bill includes almost $1 billion for feeder services to HSR? That’s outside of the regular funding stream for transit, so HSR is actually creating more funds for transit, not taking away.

    @joseph

    There’s no law that says the project level EIR can’t be done concurrently with program level, meaning they can use all the added detail of the project level to fill in the gaps in the program level. No added time, no added cost.

    If you actually read the court ruling you would know that it validated the studies that resulted in choosing Pacheco. for more detail see:

    http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2009/08/atherton-et-al-lawsuit-decided.html
    http://cahsr.blogspot.com/2009/08/initial-ruling-in-atherton-v-chsra.html
    (The first link is a more neutral view, although the author is an HSR supporter, the second link has an embedded copy of the ruling)

    The court has not yet made it’s ruling as to exactly what steps will need to be taken by CHSRA, but from the latest documents it looks like it won’t be too serious.

  • bikerider

    “I read something about Port officials worrying about heights with an electrified Caltrain and HSR prohibiting shipment of cars on the railroad tracks from the piers of San Francisco …”

    @Jamie: The Caltrain ROW is (basically) 4 tracks wide. With Pacheco alignment, all 4 tracks are required for Caltrain+HSR+Baby Bullet; whereas Altamont only requires 3 tracks. Thus, the Authority would have to figure out some way to accommodate both freight and high-speed trains on the same track.

    Under FRA rules, combining freight and high-speed passenger trains incurs gigantic operational and capital costs. It is not at all clear how this is going to done. Most likely outcome is severe degradation in the quality of passenger service in order to accommodate a relatively tiny number of freight trains.

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