High-speed rail board rejects environmental review

December 3, 2009 7:31:38 PM PST
The California High-Speed Rail Authority board today rescinded its approval of an environmental impact report on a section of the statewide high-speed rail project between the Bay Area and Central Valley.

The board took the action this morning at its meeting in Sacramento because of a court ruling in October that found that its analysis was insufficient for a 36-mile stretch of the proposed line between Gilroy and San Jose.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed in 2008 by opponents of the project, including the cities of Menlo Park and Atherton and four conservation groups.

The lawsuit challenges the rail authority's selection of the Pacheco Pass as the route for trains to access the Bay Area from the Central Valley, and contends that the authority did not adequately study the impacts of the project before deciding to run trains up the Peninsula.

The proposed Pacheco Pass route would use existing Caltrain right-of-way. Many Peninsula residents have expressed opposition to having high-speed trains running through the area.

Some opponents of the project argue that the trains should instead go through the East Bay by way of the Altamont Pass, avoiding part of the Peninsula.

According to the environmental impact report, trains on the Altamont Pass alignment would have to travel across the Bay to connect to San Francisco, requiring significant additions to the Dumbarton Bridge or the construction of a new bridge.

The California Rail Foundation, one of the groups that oppose the project, issued a press release Wednesday stating that the rail authority board was expected to rescind its selection of the Pacheco Pass alignment for the project in addition to rescinding its approval of the environmental impact report.

However, board member Quentin L. Kopp said at today's meeting that the release was "a glittering but inaccurate description" of the court's ruling in August.

Kopp said "the court's ruling validated as legally sufficient the analysis of the proposed alignments, Pacheco Pass on one hand and Altamont Pass on the other" and that the report was only found to be insufficient for the portion between Gilroy and San Jose.

CHSRA Deputy Director Jeff Barker said the parts of the review that were deemed insufficient include right-of-way issues on Union Pacific railroad tracks, and the effects of vibrations on areas immediately surrounding the Gilroy-to-San Jose portion of the line.

Barker said the issue with Union Pacific is something "we'll have to sit down and look at," and that the vibration issue is being studied.

Stuart Flashman, the attorney representing the groups that filed the lawsuit, said today's decision "is essentially reopening the environmental review, and if people feel there were things that were not sufficiently addressed previously, they can submit them for review."

Flashman said his clients will likely submit further evidence of why the Altamont Pass is better for the project than the Pacheco Pass, and that the report will have to "rebalance looking at the impacts" of the two alignments.

Barker said that when the environmental impact report is revised, there will indeed be an opportunity for public input, and that residents "can say whatever they want and we'll listen to it," but that the focus of the CHSRA will be to "address the issues that the judge discussed."

He said that because of the work on the environmental review and the public input period, the soonest the board will be able to address the issue again is February or March of 2010.

Today's decision is the latest speed bump for the high-speed rail project, for which voters approved $9.95 billion in bond money in November 2008.

In October, California submitted an application for $4.7 billion in federal stimulus funds for the project. Barker said the environmental review has to be done by September 2011 to be eligible for the stimulus money.

The entire project would create an electrified system of bullet trains that would eventually run from Sacramento and San Francisco down to Los Angeles and San Diego.

In addition to Atherton and Menlo Park and the group California Rail Foundation, the other groups participating in the lawsuit are the Planning and Conservation League, Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, and the BayRail Alliance.


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