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.