California's Bullet Train Isn't Dead, It's Just Resting

What train's ever arrived on time, anyway?

After a setback in federal court this week, backers of California’s long-promised 220-mph bullet train were dismayed, but transit experts say the train’s project’s going to be just fine, folks.

“I by no means believe that High Speed Rail is dead in the water,” Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law and Policy Center at the University of California, Davis, tells Inverse. But Californians hoping to zip between Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours will be waiting a little longer for their $64 billion bullet train.

The one hope for speeding up the long-delayed project was a federal board’s decision that the now 21-year-old project didn’t need to abide by California state environmental laws. But a federal appellate court on dismissed that decision on Wednesday, so now the proposed 800-mile rail system still must conduct legally mandated environmental tests, share those findings with the public, and submit to the court’s decision in cases over any protestations. All of that takes a long time.

But folks, what train ever arrived on time anyway? Experts say the project will be fine. Frank says this decision won’t change much about how the project operates. “The High Speed Rail Authority has consistently complied with the California Environmental Quality Act by doing detailed environmental analysis for each phase of the project,” he says. “I believe the Authority can and will move forward, continuing to do environmental analysis under CEQA as it has in the past.”

Officially called the California High-Speed Rail project, the bullet train’s builders thought it should be exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires comprehensive tests of the train’s potential environmental impact. Construction, industrialization, and pollution would all be factored into the plan.

Nothing has come easy for this bullet train. According to confidential reports obtained by the LA Times in January, the first 118-mile leg of the project, which was set to be complete by 2017, is looking more like 2024 — maybe later. And the original budget, again for just that first leg, has increased from $6.4 billion to nearly $10 billion, if not higher. That puts completion of the full track from Los Angeles to San Francisco closer to 2036 than the original goal of 2029.

The case also serves as a reminder of the the numerous challenges facing infrastructure projects of similar size, including Elon Musk and his hyperloop proposal — which, incidentally, was spurred in part by his hatred of California’s high speed rail plan.

Deborah Sivas, a professor of law at Stanford University and director of the Environmental Law Clinic, tells Inverse that, unlike Musk, she would love to take the bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles someday. But, Sivas is quick to add that she believes the existing environmental laws should be respected.

The proposed route for the California High-Speed Rail Authority bullet train.

Right now, California’s environmental regulations require that builders conduct environmental surveys to determine if and how their projects might be disruptive. In the case of the high speed rail project, the surveys often explore the impact of a variety of different routes, the impact of above ground paths or tunnels, and a number of other designs. If people feel the project is too disruptive to their community or its ecology, they can sue. And they do sue.

“There were half a dozen or so suits in different places, because it’s such a long system,” Sivas says.

Instead of fighting each case individually, the railway’s backers hoped the state would determine their system was exempt from environmental rules and allow them to dismiss all of those cases at once. For a time, that seemed to be the case, as an earlier federal Surface Transportation Board decision declared the project immune from California’s regulations. But Wednesday’s circuit court ruling and a similar July 31 state supreme court decision about a different railroad ruled otherwise. The circuit court characterized the surface board’s comments as “merely advisory. The court’s opinion, meanwhile, is a lot more like law.

Now, Sivas says, the high-speed rail backers will have to fight each lawsuit one by one. Though it may feel burdensome, it’s arguably the way things were always intended to go. Exemptions to the California Environmental Quality Act can be made by the legislature, but the act serves an important ecological and social purpose.

What’s more, the act doesn’t typically stop a project from completion, Sivas says. Instead, it does give the public an opportunity to ask tough questions on the race to the finish line. And so far, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has been commended by the courts for the quality of the environmental reports it has been required to submit.

While a typical California Environmental Quality Act case can be locked up in court for two years, Sivas says transit cases are given priority. Court cases like these do set precedent for future projects of a similar nature, so we hope the hyped-up hyperloop enthusiasts are taking notes — and budgeting time in the courtroom.

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