A court ruling ordering the California High-Speed Rail Authority to rewrite portions of its environmental review for the proposed 800-mile line will not delay the controversial construction project, a top rail authority official said Thursday.
Mehdi Morshed, executive director of the rail authority, said Wednesday's ruling by a Sacramento County judge generally affirmed the agency's choice of Pacheco Pass as the preferred alternative for the rail line.
"Fundamentally, the judge agreed with our environmental work and our selection of the Pacheco Pass," Morshed told the Weekly.
"The things the judge asked us to take a look at are relatively small items that we can accommodate."
Though the ruling will require the rail authority to revisit its environmental impact report and add information, Morshed said it will not change the agency's timeline for the $40 billion project.
The ruling, issued by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny, found that the rail authority inadequately described a portion of the $40 billion project and that its strategies for mitigating the vibration impact of the trains were "not supported by substantial evidence."
But the court also found that the authority "studied a reasonable range of alternatives and presented a fair and unbiased analysis" before it chose Pacheco Pass, which includes the Caltrain corridor in the Peninsula, over the Altamont Pass in East Bay.
The ruling was a response to a lawsuit filed by Menlo Park, Atherton and a coalition of transportation and environmental groups, with a "friend of the court" brief filed by Palo Alto.
Kenny also ruled that the rail authority should have recirculated the environmental report after it learned that Union Pacific Railroad opposes sharing its right-of-way with the rail line.
Plaintiffs heralded the ruling as a major setback for the controversial project.
But Morshed said the rail agency has already been operating under the assumption that it wouldn't be using Union Pacific's right-of-way. The rail agency has been looking at other options, including the use of properties adjacent to Union Pacific's right-of-way, he said.
"As we started the project-level environmental impact report, we've been considering other options with this alignment consistent with the Union Pacific objections," Morshed said.
"We're working on solutions not requiring Union Pacific's right-of-way."
Tom Lange, a spokesman for Union Pacific, told the Weekly Thursday that the company is not opposed to the concept of a high-speed rail system. But the proposed high-speed system would not be compatible with Union Pacific's freight trains.
The high-speed rail would allow its passenger trains to reach speeds as high as 220 mph in rural regions, or up to 125 mph when it passes through dense areas such as the Peninsula. The high speeds would create a safety hazard if the two rail services had to share space, Lange said.
"Our right-of-way is not compatible with the high-speed rail," he said.
Morshed said the rail authority is currently negotiating with Union Pacific on areas where the high-speed rail would have to pass next to Union Pacific tracks.
He said the rail agency could continue its work on its various "project-level" environmental impact reports (including one for the San Francisco-to-San Jose section and other segments of the line) at the same time as it's making the court-mandate updates to the "program-level" environmental impact report, which addresses the entire system.
The project-level reviews are already addressing some of the court's concerns, Morshed said. As a result, the mandated changes to the program-level environmental review should not take long, he said.
"Whatever work the judge is going to ask us to do can be done concurrently with the project-level work," Morshed said. "Fundamentally, the judge agreed with our environmental analysis and our selection of the Pacheco Pass."