Last Friday, after the California Senate voted to approve selling $8 billion in bonds to build President Obama’s high-speed rail project, The Los Angeles Times reported the news under the header “California Senate vote keeps bullet train alive.” Some readers have noticed that this conflicts with a headline we ran last month, “California high speed rail is dead.”
Were we wrong?
If you click on CHSR-is-dead headline, you’ll notice that no mention is made of the upcoming Senate vote needed to approve the bond sale. That’s because it was a foregone conclusion. Of course California Democrats would circle the wagons and keep Obama’s signature infrastructure program alive.
The bigger threat to CHSR has always been the courts, which are empowered to stop construction even before it starts thanks to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Through NEPA, any citizen affected by a federally funded project can sue to stop it in court if they believe any government agency did not do a thorough enough job producing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the projects environmental impacts.
So how are those federal agency reports on CHSR coming? The Los Angeles Times reported last month:
A wide array of state and federal agencies is examining those effects and, over the next several months, will issue scientific findings that could affect the cost and schedule of construction.
Even if the Legislature appropriates the state’s share of money this summer, the construction schedule will depend on friendly and quick decisions by often tough regulators.
The rail authority and its partners at the Federal Railroad Administration also need clearance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is preparing a biological opinion on the project’s effects on endangered and threatened species, said Daniel Russell, a deputy assistant field supervisor at the service.
So far, the service has identified six animal and five plant species listed as endangered or threatened that would be affected by the Merced-to-Fresno section of the rail project. It has yet to determine whether the project would harm those species or could jeopardize their survival or have effects that could be mitigated, Russell said.
The animals include the San Joaquin kit fox, the California tiger salamander, two types of fairy shrimp, a tadpole shrimp and the valley elderberry longhorn beetle.
Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California, said a lot of public and private money has been invested into preserving those species.
“The kit fox is pretty charismatic,” she said.
By choosing to go up the eastern side of the Central Valley rather than the drier western side, the rail authority will cross up to 100 bodies of water controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“We anticipate there to be unavoidable impacts, given the sheer magnitude of the project,” said Susan Meyer, a senior project manager at the Army Corps of Engineers. The law requires that any impacts be avoided or minimized. The Army could require “compensatory mitigation” under its permits, Meyer said.
In other words, the federal agencies that must produce EISs before the project can begin have not even finished their work. And when they do groups that oppose the project are guaranteed to sue to stop construction before it starts. The San Francisco Chronicle reports:
Should high-speed rail officials persuade lawmakers to fund construction of the first 130-mile stretch, they’ll need to quickly rebuild support in the San Joaquin Valley, where poor community relations have soured already skeptical farmers and local leaders, overshadowed hopes of economic development, and fueled opposition that could slow or stop arrival of the fast trains.
Nearly as critical as the funding is the support of the project in the San Joaquin Valley. Home to some of the nation’s richest farmland, concerns rooted in protecting the rural lifestyle have blossomed into a campaign to stop the train.
“Up and down the valley, wherever you go, people are opposed to this,” said John Tos, who runs Tos Farms near Hanford. “But Kings County is the hot spot in the whole state of California.”
Again, construction on the rail project must start before this December 31st or California will lose all federal funding for the project. There simply is no way federal agencies can issue their EISs, and then have them fully litigated, before that deadline.