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Governor backs away from bullet train fight

High-Speed Rail Authority

Gov. Jerry Brown backed away from a fight with environmentalists yesterday, abandoning a plan to exempt the $68 billion California bullet train project from environmental laws.

Brown had hoped to fast-track construction of the controversial project by sidestepping key provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act.

But the idea had put him at odds with most of the state’s green groups.

The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Planning and Conservation League were among the organizations that in recent days had strongly criticized Brown’s plan.

The Sierra Club had called Brown’s idea “dangerous” and “a political mistake.”

Most of the state’s environmental groups backed Brown in his 2010 campaign for governor. Several green groups have been firm supporters of the rail project, which would link San Francisco and Los Angeles with trains traveling more than 200 miles per hour.

Environmentalists said they were informed that Brown was abandoning the plan by Ken Alex, director of the governor's Office of Planning and Research.

Brown’s press office referred questions to the state High-Speed Rail Authority, which declined to comment.

Brown’s decision removed potential roadblocks to environmental lawsuits aimed at stopping the bullet train.

But the move also might shore up legislative support for the project. For construction to begin, lawmakers soon must approve the sale of billions of dollars in state rail construction bonds.

Kathryn Phillips, executive director of Sierra Club California, said her organization wants the bullet train built. But first, she said it needs an extensive review under environmental laws.

Brown’s decision was “very good news,” Phillips said. But she said she worries that lawmakers will make further attempts to carve out exemptions from environmental review for projects that need close scrutiny.

“I frankly would like the governor and the Legislature to spend less time trying to dismantle environmental review and more time working with us to solve the most critical environmental problems in the state,” she said.

Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, said his group hadn't yet decided whether it would now support the bullet train.

The governor’s office floated the exemption idea earlier this month. According to environmentalists, the governor’s aides had portrayed the idea as limited and technical in nature: They mainly wanted to block judges in environmental lawsuits from issuing stop work orders on the bullet train project. Delays of that sort might cost California billions in federal aid, the administration says.

The environmental groups support high-speed rail as an eco-friendly transportation alternative to more freeways and airports, while the construction industry and labor unions say the project will create thousands of jobs.

But opponents on the San Francisco Peninsula and in the Central Valley have sued to stop the project, claiming construction would wreck residential neighborhoods and prime farmland.

So far, four lawsuits have been filed under terms of the Environmental Quality Act, a 40-year-old-law that requires developers to write comprehensive reports describing the pluses and minuses of big construction projects. These environmental impact reports also must propose strategies for blunting projects’ effects on air and water pollution and urban sprawl.

If critics believe that a report doesn't accurately describe a project or address its problems, they can sue, and the legal process can be prolonged.

When developers lose – as the rail authority already has, twice, in Bay Area lawsuits – they may be required to redo their reports, which takes still more time. The law gives judges the power to issue stop work orders to force legal compliance.

Development interests long have complained about the process. In recent years, the state Legislature has granted exemptions for prison and highway projects, as well as for a proposed professional football stadium in Los Angeles.

But no exemption so far has been as expansive as what Brown’s office had envisioned for the bullet train, said Oakland lawyer Stuart Flashman, who represents Peninsula-based opponents of the bullet train in two lawsuits.

Its purpose was “to wipe out all the environmental challenges,” he said in an interview before Brown dropped the idea.

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