Bullet train clears hurdle as Trump administration OKs state environmental oversight

The Trump administration has lifted a major hurdle for California’s efforts to develop its ambitious high-speed rail program, effectively delegating its federal responsibility for environmental review of route sections to the state.

The approval by the Federal Railroad Administration allows the California High-Speed Rail Authority to assume the federal agency’s role in evaluating compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other federal environmental laws, according to a July 1 letter to the state from FRA Administrator Ronald Batory.

But the environmental delegation does not affect the FRA’s termination earlier this year of a $929 million federal grant for the state’s rail project, or the potential for the agency to seek repayment of more than $2 billion in federal stimulus grants awarded to California under the Obama administration.

“This is the first time FRA has assigned its environmental review responsibilities, and follows the Federal Highway Administration’s assigning National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) responsibilities to California in 2007,” the FRA said through a spokesperson. “FRA is taking this step after working diligently with the State through technical issues and considering public comment.”

The spokesperson added that the terminated grant agreement did not include environmental review within its scope.

Elizabeth Goldstein Alexis, co-founder of Bay Area watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, described it as “a little strange” for the same federal agency trying with one hand to take high-speed rail money away from the state to use the other hand to remove a significant obstacle for the project.

CAARD has been monitoring the state’s handling of the rail effort for about a decade.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the memorandum of understanding with the FRA on Tuesday, and state Transportation Agency Secretary David Kim sent the signed agreement to Batory on Thursday.

“With the NEPA Assignment MOU now fully executed, California assumes FRA’s environmental review and approval responsibilities as the federal lead agency under NEPA and looks forward to working with FRA in its continuing grant oversight role,” Kim wrote in his letter to Batory.

Prior to Batory’s approval of the environmental agreement, the California High-Speed Rail Authority already had the power to review sections of the proposed rail route under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. But because federal money is also involved in California’s bullet-train program, the project also has to be certified to comply with NEPA. Without the federal review, California could approve projects under the state law, but would be unable to move ahead with bidding or construction.

California applied to the FRA for assignment of federal responsibility in January 2018. “About a year ago, FRA indicated that while the NEPA assignment was under consideration, they were suspending their review of our environmental documents,” Brian Annis, chief financial officer for state rail authority, told The Bee on Thursday.

“Now the state will have assumed the federal role. We’re happy to be able to move NEPA forward again, because we’ve been stalled for almost a year.”

The federal approval came as a surprise to CARRD’s Alexis. “Maybe they (the FRA) just don’t want to be involved any more. It simplifies their life; it’s better than when the FRA has a responsibility for environmental review and they just ignore it,” she said. “And as long as the feds are acting badly, it makes it hard to litigate some of these other issues like the grant agreements.”

From the state’s perspective, “it should make things easier for them in some ways,” Alexis added. “But it also makes it harder for them to blame the federal government for the troubles they’re having.”

So far, the only segments of the proposed 525-mile statewide rail program that have full environmental approval under both state and federal law are the Fresno-Bakersfield and Merced-Fresno sections. Last fall, the state approved a new route option and station location in Bakersfield, but that still awaits the federal review. And in the Merced-Fresno section, the Central Valley Wye – a Y-shaped junction near Chowchilla in Madera County – has yet to be certified under both state and federal environmental laws.

Without the full state and federal certifications for the Bakersfield alternative and the wye junction, the state would be unable to complete an operating high-speed rail route between Merced and Bakersfield called for by Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year as an interim step toward development of a system connecting the San Joaquin Valley to the Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area and, eventually, to Los Angeles and Anaheim.

Annis said the new agreement clears the way for the state to certify the Bakersfield route alternative on behalf of the FRA. He did not know when the state rail authority board would consider that approval.

“This is a very important day for completing something that we’ve been working on for a couple of years now,” Annis said. “Caltrans has had this on the highway side since 2006, when we were the first state to get federal assignment for highways. Now we’re the first state to get this kind of assignment for rail. We’re excited to bring that same kind of streamlining over to the rail side.”

Construction for high-speed rail has been under way since 2014 on about 120 miles of the route in Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.

Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.