High-Speed Rail Hits Six Legal Bumps

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – Two California counties, the city of Bakersfield and three other plaintiffs filed separate lawsuits against the California High-Speed Rail Authority, challenging the environmental review of a 114-mile stretch of the rail project in the San Joaquin Valley.
     Joining Kings and Kern counties and Bakersfield in separate, similar lawsuits late last week are a church, a medical clinic and a landowner.
     A typical complaint, filed by Kings County, Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability, and the Kings County Farm Bureau, claims the California High-Speed Rail Authority violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and other state laws by approving the environmental review of the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment of the 800-mile public transit project.
     The segment “would ultimately cause extensive significant adverse impacts to, among other things, Central Valley agriculture, air quality, land use, aesthetics and visual resources, cultural resources, biological resources and wetlands, and parks and recreation resources, a hospital, churches, and hundreds of homes,” the lawsuit states.
     The stretch of railway would also deviate from existing transportation corridors along Interstate 5 and Route 99, destroying or interfering with thousands of acres of farmland and wildlife habitat, established communities and businesses, commercial properties and industrial facilities, roads, and water delivery and drainage facilities, Kings County claims.
     A second lawsuit, filed the same day by landowner Coffee-Brimhall LLC, claims that the segment “would destroy prime farmland and historic resources, would cause severe noise and vibration impacts on residences and businesses adjacent to the tracks, would increase traffic that it is intended to reduce, and would conflict with local land use plans. Many of these impacts would fall disproportionately on minority and low-income populations” in cities and rural areas throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
     The Authority failed to analyze alternatives that would avoid or reduce these impacts, and did not recirculate the environmental impact report despite significant new information about “geotechnical impacts, Valley fever, and interference with existing railroad lines, among other things” that were not “disclosed until after the draft EIR,” Kings County says in the lawsuit. “In addition, the authority revised the project to include additional elevated sections and other changes to the alignment without circulating the EIR.”
     High-Speed Rail Authority spokeswoman Annie Parker said in a statement today: “This is not about protecting the environment but about Kings County and other opponents trying every means possible to stop high-speed rail. Our environmental analysis was thorough and complete, perhaps the most comprehensive analysis document ever prepared in California. There was no opposition to it from any federal or state agency responsible for environmental protection, nor from any environmental organization.”
     But the citizens group said in a statement that it, the county and the farm bureau have tried to work with the Authority to avoid and reduce environmental impacts from the proposed rail lines, but their attempts were ignored.
     “The rail line is only 15 percent designed or less, so its extensive impacts to agricultural land, residences, businesses, and biological resources are poorly identified. New information presented in the final EIR was not disclosed to the public earlier when it would have been meaningful. For example, air quality impacts from construction and soil movement will be much greater than disclosed, and the benefits of air pollution reductions will be half of what was anticipated in draft documents. Interference with nearby rail operations of BNSF are barely recognized, and not addressed,” the citizens group said in the statement.
     The group also cited concerns about the uncertain fiscal stability of the project, potentially yielding severe impacts for all Californians that cannot be mitigated.
     Litigation against the authority “is the last option that, if successful, will prevent catastrophic impacts to our community, environment and economy,” the group said.
     This is not the first lawsuit the rail agency has faced, nor is it the first to be filed by Kings County. A 2012 lawsuit by the county alleged that the authority’s funding plan violates Proposition 1A, passed by California voters in 2008, which authorized the issuance of $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds for the train system.
     The court granted a partial victory for the county in November 2013, ruling that the Authority must rescind its approval of its November 2011 funding plan.
     In early 2013, California Attorney General Kamala Harris sued to validate nearly $9 billion in bonds needed to fund the project. She also wanted to shield the project against further litigation.
     However, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny declined to validate issuance of the bonds, finding that the high-speed rail project’s finance committee did not provide any evidence supporting the issuance of more than $8 billion in bonds under Prop. 1A.
     The rail project faced multiple environmental lawsuits in 2012.
     In its new lawsuit, Coffee-Brimhall claims that the Authority’s approval of the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment “prolongs a troubling trend regarding the statewide rail project’s planning, design, and environmental review. Courts have repeatedly found that the Authority has cut corners, ignored inconvenient facts, and failed to disclose to decisionmakers and the public the full breadth and scope of the environmental impacts that this massive infrastructure project will cause.
     “Uncertainty continues to cloud the project’s disparate and inadequate sources of funding and its purported benefits, even as the project’s price tag soars. Regardless, the Authority charges full speed ahead in an apparent effort to stay one step ahead of budget cuts and closing windows of funding. The Authority’s environmental review for the segment of the project running between Fresno and Bakersfield, which is the subject of this action, is the latest example of the Authority’s determination to press forward no matter the costs.”
     All plaintiffs seek to set aside the Authority’s approval of the Fresno-to-Bakersfield segment and certification of the environmental impact report.
     Coffee-Brimhall is represented by Benjamine Hanelin with Latham & Watkins.
     Kings County is represented by Douglas Carstens with Chatten-Brown & Carstens.
     Filing separate complaints were Kern County, the First Free Will Baptist Church of Bakersfield, the City of Bakersfield and Dignity Health.

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