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Is the Fix In?

Are the Governor, the California High Speed Rail Authority, and a few environmental groups trying to circumvent the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for high-speed rail?

Mar 30, 2012


Families Protecting The Valley Newsletter

MARCH 30 2012


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Denis Prosperi
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Is the Fix In?
Is the fix in? Are the Governor, the California High Speed Rail Authority, and a few environmental groups trying to circumvent the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for high-speed rail? According to the article below from the L.A. Times, "major environmental groups confirm they have been in discussions with state officials about some type of relief from possible environmental challenges to the project."
The hypocrisy is overwhelming. Some of the environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) continue to file lawsuit after lawsuit that have taken millions of acre-feet of water away from the Central Valley (CV) for supposed environmental purposes. Nothing they've done has been effective in solving our water problems. Further, they have frustrated for decades our attempts to build a dam at Temperance Flat above Friant at a site that is not environmentally sensitive by using CEQA and other laws to push their environmental agenda. Now, they want to exempt a project of this magnitude. If CEQA and other environmental laws are critical to this society, then they should be applied with consistency.
Lastly, those with concerns about the HSR project in the Central Valley and its effect on our existing infrastructure and communities continue to be dismissed and denigrated by spokespersons from our area. Maybe it is time they stop ‘selling out’ their neighbors and start insisting that this HSR project be compatible with our existing Central Valley engines like agriculture. Also, if they believe in democracy they should take note of what the voters voted for to begin with and insist environmental laws be applied equally across the board.

Local spokespersons are providing cover to the HSR staff and consultants who have ignored their own guidelines of maximizing the use of existing corridors and minimizing impact to farm land. Local spokespersons in favor of this project could help bridge this gap.



Brown administration, bullet train board seek to ease environmental reviews of the project

Environmental groups that have joined discussions on relaxing reviews say they'll support small-scale concessions but not wholesale exemptions.

By Ralph Vartabedian and Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times

California's bullet train authority and representatives of the Brown administration are exploring ways to relax environmental review procedures on the massive project to help meet a tight construction schedule, The Times has learned.

Major environmental groups confirm they have been in discussions with state officials about some type of relief from possible environmental challenges to the project, which is falling behind schedule and risks losing federal funding if it must conduct new reviews of construction and operational effects.

The environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Planning and Conservation League Foundation, say they are willing to consider small-scale concessions but will oppose a wholesale exemption of the environmental process.

The $98.5-billion rail system would be the nation's largest infrastructure project and faces a daunting environmental review process. If revisions of the bullet train plan force the California High-Speed Rail Authority to conduct new reviews, it may push construction past deadlines required to obtain federal funding.

"It could potentially kill the project," said Bruce Reznik, executive director of Planning and Conservation League, which supports the bullet train but also has participated in litigation against the rail authority.

Dan Richard, chairman of the rail authority, said the state was not seeking to bypass any laws or seeking any exemptions from regulations. But new plans to blend the bullet train system into existing San Francisco and Southern California commuter rail systems have altered the project design. Richard said he's concerned about having to redo the environmental review already completed for the Bay Area.

"It is a technical issue," Richard said. "It is a characterization issue. All I have done is raise it with people and see how we can deal with it."

But environmental groups say the discussions have involved more than simply clarifying technical issues. They say the talks have included streamlining the environmental review process. Given the scope of changes recently proposed for the system, the rail authority ideally would conduct a new, systemwide environmental analysis that could take a year or more, they say. Critics argue that existing environmental reviews are no longer relevant.

"The environmental review doesn't describe the system they want to build," said Nadia Naik, a cofounder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Development. "The blended approaches puts constraints on how many high speed trains can operate. It affects the trip times. The question is where is the analysis?"

The rail authority is supposed to unveil a new — and final — business plan in the next week.

Ken Alex, Gov. Jerry Brown's director of the state Office of Planning and Research, and Richard met March 14 with representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League. Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney for the NRDC who attended the meeting, said simplifying the environmental review process was discussed, but Alex and Richard did not mention outright exemptions from state regulations.

Reynolds said his group "would be highly skeptical" of any major relaxation of the state's environmental review requirements. Reznik said his group would agree to "tweaking" the process, but would not commit to any concession until they see a proposal on paper.

Brown spokesman Gil Duran said the governor was not considering any environmental exemptions, appearing to leave open the possibility of streamlining the process.

Richard defended the validity of existing reviews for the proposed system. Plans to blend bullet train operations with existing systems will reduce, not increase, environmental issues, he said. The discussions with environmental groups may help head off future conflict, given that the state has already been threatened with lawsuits, he said.

Indeed, a local Bay Area environmental group, TRANSDEF, has joined two suits that forced revisions of the environmental plan and is contemplating a third suit, said the group's president, David Schonbrunn. The group wants the existing route into the Bay Area via the Pacheco Pass near Gilroy ped because it would disturb environmentally sensitive rural areas. It advocates a more direct route over the Altamont Pass near Stockton.

"The rail authority is getting ready to be three-time losers," he said. "If they keep doing what they seem to be doing, there is a good chance they could get sued."

The blended system was pushed by local leaders over the last year as the only way to politically save the project. But it may violate a bond measure approved by voters in 2008. Quentin Kopp, a former state senator and former chairman of the rail authority, said the effort to integrate northern California's Caltrain and other rail systems is an attempt by local agencies to get bullet train money.

"I consider such a plan a device by shrewd leaders of Caltrain and Metrolink to get money out of the high-speed rail authority and the bond proceeds," he said. "This is not what was contemplated by the Legislature."




California simply can't afford high-speed rail, now or later


California currently has a $9.2 billion deficit, and the 2012-13 deficit will be larger much larger, according to a Feb. 27 report released by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. The LAO report states that California's tax revenue will fall $6.5 billion short of Gov. Jerry Brown's January 2012 budget proposal, and that revenue will decrease even more if voters do not approve his income and sales tax hike initiative later this year. So, according to the LAO, our 2012-13 state deficit will be at least $15.7 billion.

In these economically perilous times, how can we even consider obligating ourselves to paying 30 years of interest on state bonds for a $117.6 billion high-speed rail project? Have we lost our minds?

In 2008, 52 percent of California voters narrowly approved Proposition 1A. Prop. 1A authorized the state to issue bonds borrowed money totaling $9.95 billion to fund approximately one-third of the cost of the California high-speed rail project. The federal government and private investment was supposed to fund the balance of the project. Prop. 1A promised 800 miles of electrified rails for an estimated cost of $33.5 billion. State Auditor's report No. 2009-106 references Prop. 1A by stating, "According to state law, the entire network, from Sacramento to San Diego, is intended to be complete by 2020."

The High-Speed Rail Authority's draft 2012 business plan now describes a project that does not remotely resemble the project that voters approved in the 2008 Prop. 1A initiative. The project is now reduced from 800 to 520 miles and the cost has increased from $33 billion to $117.6 billion. The business plan does not include a schedule or cost estimate for the L.A. Basin to San Diego section of the project or the connector to Sacramento. There is virtually no private investment. The federal government has earmarked $4.3 billion for the project. However, Congress has successfully blocked any future federal contributions. The estimated date of completion is now 2033.

The voters were deceived in 2008. Taxpayers are outraged.

When the state has a budget shortfall, it raids local coffers, reducing funds for police, fire and other services. Redevelopment agencies have been completely eliminated across the state. Funding for other necessary infrastructure construction and maintenance projects will be reduced.

A properly planned high-speed rail system would move large numbers of commuters at high speed from the high-population-density areas of San Francisco Bay to the high-population-density areas of the L.A. Basin, following existing transportation corridors to prevent destruction of community and private properties as required by Prop. 1A.

A properly planned high-speed rail system would not unnecessarily destroy thousands of acres of the most productive farmland in the world, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in annual lost revenue. It would not unnecessarily destroy hundreds of existing Kern County business locations, impacting thousands of jobs. It would not destroy hundreds of homes in Kern County, displacing thousands of residents, and it would not unnecessarily destroy so much community infrastructure. This destruction will mean the loss of thousands of existing jobs and millions of dollars of annual lost revenue. Our community tax base will be severely impacted.

Amtrak employs 19,000 full-time people nationwide to work on a network of 23,000 miles of track. So, it is reasonable to assume that the 520-mile-long California HSR project will produce only a small fraction of the jobs that Amtrak's nationwide operation does today.

Modern rail construction is highly mechanized and efficient. It is no longer labor-intensive. Technology-dependent jobs such as construction of high-speed train locomotives and cars will be located in countries that make high-speed trains, such as China. The rails are also likely to be manufactured in other countries due to much cheaper costs.

We have substantial transportation rail infrastructure already in place. Amtrak, BART, Metro-Link and other passenger rail system upgrades would solve the same transportation problems that HSR will supposedly solve for a tiny fraction of the cost. The California high-speed rail project is not the answer to California's future transportation needs.

Jeff Taylor of Bakersfield conducts business as a contractor in the construction trades.

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