Caltrain must comply with the state's environmental quality act in electrifying its rail system between San Francisco and San Jose, according to a ruling July 2 by the federal Surface Transportation Board.
The ruling is a setback for Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which runs Caltrain. In February, the joint powers board was sued by Atherton and two other groups saying the environmental report on the electrification project had been improperly approved.
The Caltrain board responded by asking the federal transportation board to declare it is exempt from complying with the state environmental act.
Just months earlier, in December 2014, the transportation board had declared the state's high-speed rail project is exempt from the same California environmental laws because the project fell under the oversight of the federal board, mainly because that project is expected to link to the interstate rail system.
In the July 2 ruling, however, the federal board said that it does not have jurisdiction.
"Caltrain provides only commuter rail service on the line ... and operations of this sort are excluded from the Board's jurisdiction," the ruling says.
The ruling means the lawsuit can now go ahead. The lawsuit was filed in San Mateo County Superior Court in February by Atherton, the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, a transit advocacy nonprofit, and the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail, which is headed by former Atherton Mayor Jim Janz. The lawsuit asks that work on the project be stopped and the approval of the environmental report be rescinded, until issues raised in the lawsuit are addressed.
In February, Stuart Flashman, the attorney filing the suit, said the lawsuit is an attempt to force the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board to acknowledge the impacts the project will have on the Peninsula.
Atherton filed the lawsuit after its request to extend the period when the environmental report could be challenged was turned down by the Caltrain, which said "that time will not materially change the responses" to the town's concerns.
The lawsuit claims the environmental report is flawed in several ways, including its failure to address the cumulative impact of high-speed rail and electrification. The lawsuit says the projects must be considered together because approximately $600 million of the projected $1.5 billion cost of the electrification project is supposed to come from funding approved for high-speed rail by the voters in 2008.
Caltrain spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann said at the time that Caltrain is "disappointed to see that rather than working with Caltrain collaboratively the town of Atherton has chosen this expensive path."