California’s Bullet Train Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Resting


The proposed route for the California High-Speed Rail Authority bullet train.

Right now, California’s environmental regulations require that builders conduct environmental surveys to determine if and how their projects might be disruptive. In the case of the high speed rail project, the surveys often explore the impact of a variety of different routes, the impact of above ground paths or tunnels, and a number of other designs. If people feel the project is too disruptive to their community or its ecology, they can sue. And they do sue.

“There were half a dozen or so suits in different places, because it’s such a long system,” Sivas says.

Instead of fighting each case individually, the railway’s backers hoped the state would determine their system was exempt from environmental rules and allow them to dismiss all of those cases at once. For a time, that seemed to be the case, as an earlier federal Surface Transportation Board decision declared the project immune from California’s regulations. But Wednesday’s circuit court ruling and a similar July 31 state supreme court decision about a different railroad ruled otherwise. The circuit court characterized the surface board’s comments as “merely advisory. The court’s opinion, meanwhile, is a lot more like law.

Now, Sivas says, the high-speed rail backers will have to fight each lawsuit one by one. Though it may feel burdensome, it’s arguably the way things were always intended to go. Exemptions to the California Environmental Quality Act can be made by the legislature, but the act serves an important ecological and social purpose.

What’s more, the act doesn’t typically stop a project from completion, Sivas says. Instead, it does give the public an opportunity to ask tough questions on the race to the finish line. And so far, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has been commended by the courts for the quality of the environmental reports it has been required to submit.

While a typical California Environmental Quality Act case can be locked up in court for two years, Sivas says transit cases are given priority. Court cases like these do set precedent for future projects of a similar nature, so we hope the hyped-up hyperloop enthusiasts are taking notes — and budgeting time in the courtroom.


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