California Supreme Court ruling could end bullet train suits

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A California Supreme Court ruling expected Thursday could help speed construction of the state's $64 billion high-speed rail project by exempting it from a key environmental review law.

The court will decide whether state-owned and funded rail lines are subject to the California Environmental Quality Act or whether federal law trumps the state environmental statute.

The ruling will come in a lawsuit involving the act that challenged plans to introduce freight trains on a Northern California rail line.

Supporters and critics of the state's high-speed rail system say the decision could apply to the bullet train planned between Los Angeles and San Francisco as well.

The ambitious high-speed rail project has faced numerous lawsuits alleging violations of the environmental quality act. Those lawsuits could disappear if the California Supreme Court were to rule that federal law pre-empts the act for state rail projects.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority could also be freed from a host of regulatory and procedural requirements that might slow construction of the line. The project would still be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, but critics say that's not a substitute for the state's stricter environmental protections.

In a brief in the case, the high-speed rail authority urged the court to find that federal law trumps the state's environmental law, saying the case had "potentially important ramifications for the high-speed rail project."

Central Valley farmers concerned about the bullet train's effect on agricultural land asked the California Supreme Court to reach the opposite conclusion or limit its decision to the lawsuit over the Northern California rail line.

"If the court finds the federal pre-emption of CEQA applies broadly to railroads in California such that the authority will no longer be required to satisfy CEQA's requirements, the authority will be able to evade the environmental and political accountability that California's Legislature (and the voters) intended," the Madera and Merced county farm bureaus said in their legal filing.

The state Supreme Court ruling could clear up uncertainty following a determination several years ago by a federal agency 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 under CEQA conflict with its authority over railroads.

Earlier, a California appeals court ruled in favor of several municipalities south of San Francisco that challenged the high-speed rail project using the CEQA law.

The California Court of Appeal sided with Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto and a collection of community groups in ruling that federal law does not trump the California environmental law.

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