U.S. law does not allow state-owned rail projects to completely bypass California’s strict environmental regulations, the state Supreme Court said Thursday in a decision that ensures further legal complications for the planned $64 billion bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The high court overturned a lower court ruling and gave renewed hope to those who have used the California Environmental Quality Act to challenge the high-speed rail project championed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
“It basically says that California has a right to control its own railroads and decide whether they should be required to consider carefully the environmental impacts of their projects,” said Stuart Flashman, who represents several San Francisco Bay Area cities in a lawsuit that claims the bullet train project violates state environmental law.
Richard Frank, an environmental law expert at the University of California, Davis School of Law, said the ruling, however, was not a “sweeping or unqualified victory” for those who have challenged the high-speed rail project. That’s because the court also said in some cases, U.S. law will trump the state’s statute.
“The standard that the California Supreme Court sets here is a fact-based one,” he said. “In some circumstances, there will be federal pre-emption but not on a blanket basis.”
The case pitted the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority against Central Valley farmers concerned about the bullet train’s effect on agricultural land.
In a 6-1 ruling, the state Supreme Court said a lower court interpreted federal law too broadly when it said the U.S. trumped state environmental review for projects involving railroad operations.
The ruling came in a lawsuit that challenged plans to introduce freight trains on a Northern California rail line. The suit was not directly connected to the high-speed rail project, but farmers and the rail authority said in legal briefs before the ruling that the decision could apply to it.
“Our legal team is still evaluating today’s ruling to determine what, if any, impacts it would have on the high-speed rail project,” said Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the High-Speed Rail Authority.
Alley said the agency has been conducting both federal and state environmental reviews and plans to keep doing so.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said it was highly unlikely that Congress intended to leave the state “without any means of establishing the basic principles under which it will undertake significant capital expenditures” on a rail project.
The ambitious high-speed rail project has faced numerous lawsuits alleging violations of the state environmental law. Those could have disappeared if the California justices had ruled the other way.
The rail authority also could have been freed from a host of regulatory and procedural requirements that might slow construction of the line.
The push to avoid the state environmental law may seem ironic for a signature project of Brown, who has positioned himself as a leader on environmental issues.
But the rail authority said to be successful, it must be subject to the same regulations as other railroads. A finding that federal law trumps the state’s environmental act would further its “ability to achieve the transportation, environmental, and economic benefits the high-speed rail system has to offer,” it said in a filing.
Legal experts said Thursday’s ruling may not be the final word on the issue. It is also under consideration in U.S. court, and a federal agency has determined it has the authority to pre-empt state environmental law.
The U.S. Surface Transportation Board said in 2014 that lawsuits challenging the high-speed rail line over environmental issues conflict with its authority over railroads.