California High-Speed Rail: It's Coming Fast!

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The Central Valley Is the Early Winner of Stimulus Funds.

After nearly two decades of planning and negotiations, the California high-speed rail ("HSR") is rapidly becoming a reality. The California High-Speed Rail Authority ("Authority") is poised to announce at its December 2, 2010 meeting which segment of the 800-mile HSR will be the first to be built.

The HSR is the single largest recipient of dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the "Stimulus")—$2.3 billion in January 2010 and $715 million in October 2010. Adding state funds to the Stimulus funding brings the total investment to approximately $4.3 billion. To achieve the federally mandated deadline of an "operationally independent" section by fall 2017, the Authority recently stated that all Stimulus funding must be focused on one segment rather than spread among all those eligible. Four of the nine HSR corridor segments are eligible for those funds: Los Angeles to Anaheim, San Francisco to San Jose, Merced to Fresno, and Fresno to Bakersfield (see interactive route map here).

At its November 4, 2010 meeting, the Authority's Chief Executive Officer, Roelof van Ark, presented the Authority's Board members with revised corridor selection criteria for full Board discussion and direction. However, just one day prior, the Federal Railroad Administration sent a letter to the Authority stating that the Stimulus money must all be allocated to the Central Valley.

Thus, contrary to earlier projections, the two routes in the most populated regions—San Francisco to San Jose, and Los Angeles to Anaheim—are now out of the running. The route that will be constructed first will be either Merced to Fresno (60 miles in length), or Fresno to Bakersfield (113 miles in length).

The Federal Railroad Administration's directive notwithstanding, the CEO maintained that each of the four segments will be evaluated to ensure that the most viable and readily achievable route will be selected. But the factors on which the Authority's selection criteria are premised weigh against selecting a line in the state's metropolitan areas due to significant opposition, legal challenges, and greater difficulty in acquiring rights-of-way.

Which Central Valley route will be the winner of the initial $4.3 billion allocation? The CEO's evaluation is currently underway and will be presented to the Board for its determination at the December 2 meeting. Popular opinion anticipates the Fresno to Bakersfield route will be the victor because, as an independent line, it will more closely approximate the HSR's overarching goal: utilization for mass transit.

With the funding feud shifting from state-wide to the Central Valley, task groups are already vying to be next in line. With the Central Valley poised to be the hub of the system, the segment next in line is almost certain to be a segment connecting to the Central Valley. On December 15, 2010, the CEO is scheduled to meet with a joint task force, composed of Gilroy and Morgan Hill officials, formed by the Gilroy City Council.

Meanwhile, every section of the HSR continues to undergo various stages of the environmental review process as required by the National Environmental Protection Act ("NEPA") (42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq.) and the California Environmental Quality Act ("CEQA") (codified at Pub. Res. Code § 21000 et seq.). Four of the nine segments of the HSR are currently in the Draft EIR/EIS stage. Those segments include: San Francisco to San Jose, Fresno to Bakersfield, Palmdale to Los Angles, and Los Angeles to Anaheim. During that stage, alternatives will be evaluated, mitigation measures will be studied, and the Draft EIR/EIS will be circulated for public review and comment for 45-60 days. The Authority has estimated that the public comment periods will begin as follows:

San Francisco – San Jose December 2010
Fresno – Bakersfield January 2011
Palmdale – Los Angles Mid 2011
Los Angeles – Anaheim May 2009 – 2010

The other five segments (San Jose to Merced, Merced to Fresno, Bakersfield to Palmdale, Los Angeles to San Diego, and Sacramento to Merced) are in the Alternative Analysis ("AA") stage, which is designed to expand public input opportunities after the scoping stage but before the publication of the Draft EIR/EIS. During this stage, the Authority will draft an AA report, which will be available for public comment and eventually will become the foundation for the subsequently developed Draft EIR/EIS.

Lastly, inherent in the Authority's construction of the HSR is its eventual and necessary acquisition of rights-of-way—which is certain to require property owners to get quickly up to speed on eminent domain (condemnation) law.

With many issues still uncertain, one is not: The HSR is coming fast.

For additional information on this or any related topic, please contact a key contributor.

Key Contributors

Michael N. Mills
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