Environmental Review for CA Bullet Train Reinforced by State High Court

By William Vogeler, Esq. on July 28, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Federal railway laws do not categorically preempt the California Environmental Quality Act, the state Supreme Court said, slowing down a Northern California train pending an environmental review.

The Court said CEQA applies to the state North Coast Railroad Authority -- just like any other state agency -- on its projects. The Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, a federal law that regulates public rails, does not displace state laws in carrying out those projects.

"This decision clears the way for the courts below to begin considering the merits of plaintiffs' CEQA claims, which the courts had previously found to be preempted by the ICCTA as a categorical matter," Justice Leondra Kruger wrote in a concurring opinion in Friends of Eel River v. North Coast Railroad Authority.

Almost All Aboard

Kruger joined the majority decision, but wrote separately to note that some CEQA remedies may be preempted if they unreasonably interfere with the federal Surface Transportation Board.

Judge Carol Corrigan did not agree at all. She said when a state enters the railroad business, it is subject to federal regulation just like any private business.

"[T]oday's holding will displace the long-standing supremacy of federal regulation in the area of railroad operations by allowing third party plaintiffs to thwart or delay public railroad projects with CEQA suits," she wrote in dissent. "Such an outcome is both unfair to public entities and inimical to the deregulatory purpose of ICCTA."

The dispute dates back to 1989, when the state legislature got involved in a railroad that ran through Northern California. The private company was about to shut down, but the state created the North Coast Railroad Authority to keep it going.

Stops Ahead

The rail authority channeled state and federal funds for repairs and compliance, and then turned the project over to the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company to operate in 2006. The company was rolling by 2011, but environmental groups sued to stop the train.

The plaintiffs said the rail authority and railroad company had to comply with CEQA, but the defendants said the ICCTA had preemptive jurisdiction over the operation.

After the parties wrangled in state and federal trial courts, a state appeals court ruled for the defendants. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded.

It was a closely-watched case in Northern and Southern California, primarily because of a proposed bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Under the court's ruling, the $64 billion project will also be subject to CEQA review.

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