SAN FRANCISCO — U.S. law does not allow state-owned rail projects to completely bypass California's strict environmental regulations, the state Supreme Court said 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 (CEQA) 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 the state's 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 litigants who have challenged the high-speed rail project. That's because the court also said in some cases, federal law will trump the state's environmental act.
"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 High-Speed Rail Authority had urged the court to find that federal law supersedes the state's law, while Central Valley farmers concerned about high-speed rail's effect on agricultural land asked for the opposite.
In a six to one ruling, the state Supreme Court said a lower court interpreted federal law too broadly when it said the law trumped state environmental review.
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 both sides said the decision could apply to it.
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 California High-Speed Rail Authority also could have been freed from a host of regulatory and procedural requirements that might slow construction of the line.
The rail authority did not immediately comment on the ruling.
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. Federal pre-emption of the state's environmental law would further its "ability to achieve the transportation, environmental, and economic benefits the high-speed rail system has to offer," it said.
Frank said the ruling may not be the final word on whether federal law pre-empts CEQA for state rail projects. The issue is also under consideration in federal court, and a federal agency determined several years ago that it has authority to pre-empt state environmental law.
In a decision made public in 2014, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board said lawsuits challenging the high-speed rail line over environmental issues conflict with its authority over railroads.