Friday, June 14, 2013

STB grants exemption for California HSR

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The Surface Transportation Board granted an exemption for construction of 65 miles of California high speed railroad right-of-way between Merced and Fresno, Calif., on Thursday, June 13, 2013.

“The authorization is subject to environmental conditions and the condition that CHSRA build the route designated by the Federal Railroad Administration as environmentally preferable,” STB said.

“We note, however, that in this decision the Board is granting a construction exemption only for the 65-mile Merced-to-Fresno Project, not the entire HST [high speed rail] System,” STB clarifies.

STB Docket No. FD 35724 notes the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) “filed a motion to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction, asserting that the Project does not require Board approval under 49 U.S.C. § 10901, because it would be located entirely within California, would provide only intrastate passenger rail service, and would not be constructed or operated as part of the interstate rail network” under 49 U.S.C. § 10501(a)(2)(A).

STB notes it denied the motion to dismiss last April, leading some observers to believe STB would assert its authority over any and all portions of the California proposal.

Besides reinforcing the oversight of the FRA, the 20-page decision also notes, “The California High-Speed Rail Authority shall comply with the amended Memorandum of Agreement developed through the Section 106 process of the National Historic Preservation Act.”

“After independently reviewing the entire environmental record for the Project, including the Final EIR/EIS, the comments on the proposed Final EIR/EIS adoption, FRA’s Record of Decision, and the Environmental Memorandum, we are satisfied that the Final EIR/EIS prepared by the Authority and FRA has taken the requisite ‘hard look’ at the potential environmental impacts associated with the proposed Project as required by NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970), the CEQ (the Obama Administration’s Council on Environmental Quality) regulations implementing NEPA, and the Board’s environmental rules,” STB said in its full decision. “The Final EIR/EIS adequately assesses the environmental impacts discovered during the course of the environmental review, considers a reasonable range of alternatives (including a no-action alternative), and includes appropriate mitigation to avoid or minimize potential environmental effects.

“Other than OEA’s (STB’s Office of Environmental Analysis) two recommended conditions, which are set forth below, no mitigation beyond that already imposed by FRA has been shown to be warranted here. We also find FRA’s Preferred Build Alternative to be the alternative that best satisfies the purpose and need for the proposed Project and minimizes impacts to the environment. There were no comments presented in response to OEA’s notice of proposed adoption that would cause us to reach a different conclusion.”

Supporters of the state's 700-mile system, seeking to link San Diego and Los Angeles in the south with twin northern terminii of San Francisco and Sacramento, the state capital, greeted the news with cautious enthusiasm. "Another obstacle out of the way," one state legislative source stated simply to Railway Age Friday, June 14.

Addressing the Sacramento Bee, CHSRA CEO Jeff Morales observed, "We can now focus on starting major work on the project this summer and providing thousands of jobs in the Central Valley."

Click this link to access the Board’s June 13, 2013 decision in California High-Speed Rail Authority—Construction Exemption—In Merced, Madera & Fresno Counties, Cal., FD 35724.