Bills have been introduced that would nullify longstanding environmental- and community-impact protections under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for projects deemed to be "critical infrastructure."
Backers of the rail plan naturally would characterize the project as critically important. They seem to believe new laws are needed to keep the project from being stalled by a swarm of local lawsuits along the 800-plus-mile route between San Francisco and Los Angeles — the initial phase of the project. The lead bills of several are AB 1805 and SB 1010, both titled the "CEQA Litigation Protection Pilot Program of 2010." They would exempt from judicial review a lead agency's certification or negative declaration of an environmental impact review. The bills are working their way through legislative committees.
Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt characterized the legislative moves as a "betrayal" of the public-outreach process that officials of the State of California and the California High-Speed Rail Authority have promised local officials concerned about the impacts on their communities.
At the same time, one bill has been introduced, AB2121, that would effectively terminate the rail project by pulling the plug on some or all of its funding, in the face of growing doubts about its financial viability.
But Burt emphasized that several state officials have told local representatives that CEQA is the "principal way in which our concerns will be protected."
The proposed bills would exempt "critical infrastructure projects" from CEQA review. The state's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency would be empowered to designate projects to be exempted.
Burt, who represents Palo Alto on the five-community Peninsula Cities Consortium, formed last year, said the CEQA review is the cities' primary means for communicating with the rail authority in a way that assures they will be heard.
Exemptions from environmental review would seriously undermine the legal protections communities now have relating to the project, presently estimated to cost nearly $43 billion — a cost many expect to grow over the years it would take to build the project.
But cost is not the current issue. It's trust. And it's a matter of basic credibility — some in a prior age might call it honor <0x201> for those officials who have cited CEQA as a protection for local officials, assuring them that their questions will be heard, their concerns heeded and their environmental-review rights guaranteed.
It really should come as no surprise that some supporters of the project would seek to end-run CEQA. They have already been caught by it, with a court ruling that the initial environmental impact report was lacking in key areas for the San Jose-to-Gilroy corridor, and in its relative assessment of the Pacheco Pass vs. the Altamont Pass routes.
California's Legislative Analyst March 2 released a follow-up report on the project, still laden with sharp criticisms of process, conclusions and assumptions and citing numerous gaps in High Speed Rail Authority projections — all vulnerable points under CEQA.
To counter a growing number of news articles and editorials challenging the project, including virtually every facet of the project's financial projections from ridership to revenues, the authority board in November voted $9 million to hire a big consulting firm to help with its outreach efforts up and down the state. Those funds will be wasted if the authority and its supporters persist in efforts to nullify CEQA rules.
The cities are responding to the end-run efforts in Sacramento. Palo Alto has hired Ravi Mehta of Capitol Advocates to lobby on high-speed-rail issues. City staff is working with Mehta to "oppose any legislation which would diminish or circumvent the current protection or in any way create exemptions from CEQA and court review for major infrastructure projects each year, including but not limited to the California High-Speed Rail Authority."
If the high-speed rail plan moves forward on the Peninsula, or anywhere else, it should be done with full CEQA protections in place.