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State wants to exempt itself from its own environmental review laws

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POSTED May 20, 2014 7:41 p.m.

SACRAMENTO (AP) — California’s $68 billion bullet train project should be exempt from the state’s strict environmental review process now that it is subject to federal oversight, the state attorney general’s office argued Tuesday in a state appellate court.

The hearing came after the federal Surface Transportation Board determined last year that it has authority over California’s high-speed rail project, subjecting it to additional federal requirements.

The determination was sought by opponents of the bullet train, led by Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican from the Central Valley. It is one of several efforts by opponents to halt construction, but they did not anticipate that a state agency would then seek a legal exemption from the state’s own regulations.

If the judges agree the project is no longer subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, the state rail authority would be freed from a host of regulatory and procedural requirements that could slow construction. Opponents of the project would also lose one of their most significant legal tools.

The project’s critics have repeatedly sued the state alleging violations of the state environmental law.

Tuesday’s hearing before a three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal came in a five-year old lawsuit filed by the San Francisco Bay Area cities of Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto. They are seeking to block the bullet train route between that area and the Central Valley via the scenic Pacheco Pass.

They argue that the route would harm the environment.

Attorneys who argued against the state Tuesday characterized it as another legal ploy by the state in the disputed project for which voters approved selling nearly $10 billion in bonds in 2008.

“It’s clear that the voters were told that CEQA would apply,” attorney Stuart Flashman told the judges. He also noted that the state Legislature, which approved selling bonds for the project, discussed the idea of exempting high-speed rail from CEQA several times but never did so.

The judges have 90 days to rule.

The lawsuit is one of four involving high-speed rail:

• In the most prominent case, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge denied the state’s request to sell $8.6 billion in bonds.

• In a related lawsuit, residents in the Central Valley argue that plans for the bullet train no longer comply with the promises made to voters.

• The California High-Speed Rail Authority is seeking permission to acquire a handful of parcels in Kings County after failing to reach deals with the owners to buy their land.

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