Tuesday, November 20, 2012

California HSR bests latest legal challenge

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In what is almost assuredly just one of a continuing wave of legal moves to terminate, block or otherwise alter California's plan to implement high speed rail, a judge has denied a request to block work filed by farming interests in the Central Valley.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley last Friday ruled that the threat of delaying progress on the initial phase of the 700-mile project outweighs the risk to farmers and other property owners along the route. The judge noted that construction is not expected to begin until after the merits of three lawsuits over HSR plans are decided.

Opponents, including the Madera County Farm Bureau, sought to forbid any work, including planning and design, needed by the the California High-Speed Rail Authority until the three lawsuits are decided; those suits are scheduled to come before the court next spring.

Said Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, "We're just as important as endangered species. We're just as important as any other threatened resource" when it comes to environmental impact. But, she acknowledged, "We just weren't able to convince the judge that there is enough harm."

Judge Frawley said opponents failed to prove that any faults in paperwork, including environmental reviews, warranted an injunction to block CHSRA's work. "It is certainly possible, and perhaps even likely, that the agency may not have done everything perfectly," Frawley said. "But [the California Environmental Quality Act] does not demand perfection. It demands that an agency act reasonably and make a good-faith effort to fully disclose and where necessary mitigate the project's environmental impacts. At this preliminary stage of the case, I am not convinced that the authority has failed to meet this standard."

The request for an injunction was a component of the three lawsuits, which seek to impede Phase 1 of the HSR project, running from east of Madera to the south end of Fresno, Calif. CHSRA expects to receive bids from interested contractors early next year. About $3 billion from Proposition 1A, a state bond measure approved by state voters in 2008, is expected to complete the Valley work.

At UIC High Speed 2012 (8th World Congress on High-Speed Rail) in Philadelphia last summer, CHSRA CEO Jeffrey Morales, responding to a question, allowed that the authority expected the HSR project to be contested in ways old and new throughout its planning and construction. Morales said then CHSRA would continue to reach out to those interested in or concerned about the project.

Following the judge's decision, Morales said, "We don't want to just prevail in the courts. We want to make it more workable for the communities as we go forward."

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