Enviro Groups Rally Against Fast-Tracking California High-Speed Rail

Published July 16, 2012

Two prominent environmental activist groups, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are rallying against California Gov. Jerry Brown’s efforts to fast-track construction of high-speed rail in the state.

Special Environmental Exemptions

Brown is asking the state legislature to give high-speed rail special exemptions from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Under Brown’s proposal, environmental objections to high-speed rail plans will be dismissed unless opponents convince a state judge that the environmental damages “substantially outweigh” the alleged statewide benefits of high-speed rail, such as job creation and billions of dollars in federal grants.

‘Dangerous Precedent’

“We strongly oppose your administration’s proposal to eliminate certain California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements for the currently proposed high-speed rail program,” Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips said in a June 5 letter to the governor.

“By removing a large-scale project such as high-speed rail from full CEQA coverage, the proposal grants the state a status that suggests it does not have to fully and seriously consider and mitigate environmental impacts,” Phillips added. “This proposal creates a dangerous precedent that, if applied here and to other large-scale public works projects, will throw the state back to an era when bulldozers and engineers trumped clean air, clean water, wetlands and natural habitat, and the public interest with abandon.”

Widespread Opposition

Brown is facing principled opposition from other groups as well. 

“A full CEQA review is absolutely vital,” said Ted Crocker, cofounder of the grassroots activist group High Speed Boondoggle. “One great thing about the California Environmental Quality Act is that it really makes a government agency stop and think before it takes final action, so the ‘perceived wisdom’ that high-speed rail is good for the environment can be put to the test of an honest analysis. Unfortunately, in his haste to grab a relatively small amount of federal funding, Gov. Brown is definitely not inclined to stop and think.” 

Marc Scribner, the land-use and transportation policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, agrees, saying, “It is interesting that Gov. Brown, who continues in the recent tradition of California walling off most of California for much-need development, believes that a train to nowhere through ecologically sensitive areas warrants a special exemption from his job-destroying environmental laws.”.

Chasing Away Business

“The high cost of high-speed rail and Gov. Brown’s willingness to exempt it from environmental laws that apply to any other form of development both contribute to California being the worst state in which to do business,” said Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. 

“Companies are leaving the state, the wealthy are leaving the state, and the middle class is leaving the state. Is California’s situation hopeless? Yes, so long as the state puts toys such as high-speed rail above the health of the economy as a whole,” O’Toole explained.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.