Monday, May 20, 2013

An abuse of environmetal law to further delay the Perris Valley Line

Is the State of California really becoming a puritanical state?

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As The Transit Coalition has been covering for the past several months, the combination of NIMBY opposition and loopholes in state environmental law is actually harming environmentally-friendly transportation projects. The latest project to take such a hit is the Metrolink Perris Valley Line extension, a long overdue public transit alternative for the Perris Valley region. Here's what the Sierra Club, the oldest, largest, and most influential grassroots environmental organization in the country, has to say about public transportation:

Smart, green transportation is the key to moving beyond oil. Only half of all Americans have access to public transportation. Americans win when they have a choice for every trip -- whether it's high-mileage, advanced technology, or electric cars; convenient rail and transit; or safe walking and biking.

As many of the public are aware, the Perris Valley Line project basically involved upgrading an existing active rail right-of-way to support passenger service and develop a series of train stations along the way. The first of trains would simply be an extension of the existing 91 Line to Fullerton and Los Angeles. That's it. On May 16, 2013, Superior Court Judge Sharon Waters ordered that RCTC decertify the project's EIR within 90 days because of puritanical environmental issues which could be easily resolved. The ruling places yet another indefinite delay on the project which was, at one point, slated for operations back in 2008. It demonstrates how CEQA law can be misused and why the state legislature needs to close the landmark legislation's loopholes and make it retroactive.

The CEQA lawsuit boiled down to this: NIMBY opposition was centered in a residential neighborhood near UC Riverside, where a group of residents claimed the added noise of passing Metrolink trains would impact their homes, despite the fact that louder freight trains already pass through the area. The group demanded that the area be designated as quiet zones. To address their concerns, RCTC officials delayed the project for two years and postponed the planning and development of the UC Riverside station from the project.

Not satisfied, the Friends of Riverside Hills group filed the CEQA lawsuit in August, 2011, citing several concerns not addressed in the project's EIR. On May 16, 2013, the group won its case when judge Waters threw out the rail line's EIR over few of the concerns, a clear abuse of exploiting CEQA law loopholes. Here are the issues: Track lubricant usage, hiker's safety, train wheel noise pollution, and construction related noise.

As mentioned before, the safety of hikers is irrelevant to environmental protection; that's a fact. However, to be fair, the illegal trespassing into an active rail right-of-way needs to be policed better. The other issues the state legislature can address and make retroactive are: How much total noise in decibels are passing passenger trains allowed to make through quiet zones? What types of track lubricants can be used to comply with CEQA? Are contracted firms who disrupt the environment during the construction phase being held accountable?

Even with these minor issues, The Transit Coalition does not believe that the Perris Valley Line would have contributed to worsened pollution, increased traffic congestion, or disrupted a natural ecosystem. There is no question that this case is NIMBY obstruction and a puritanical abuse of CEQA law. This whole case is shameful.

Two Metrolink locomotives. Going forward, RCTC plans to discuss what's next at their 6/12 Commissioners board meeting. There's a number of ways this case can go:
  • RCTC can appeal the judgement at a higher court.
  • According to Len Nunney, the secretary for Friends of Riverside Hills, RCTC can engage in a settlement without having to recompile its EIR.
  • The state legislature can reform CEQA in a way which could affect the judgement in favor of RCTC. US Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA 42nd District) plans to work with his federal colleagues and the state legislature. To be fair, CEQA needs to control pet projects like football stadiums from being fast-tracked through the system but also protect environmentally sound projects from being vetoed from the bench just because a group opposes it.
It's far too early to predict how RCTC and the state will handle this ruling, but widespread public support all but guarantees that the Perris Valley Line, or some form of environmentally friendly passenger rail service, will eventually service the corridor. The point boils down to this: The state cannot continue to be a place of CEQA puritanism. Major environmental groups like the Sierra club support public rail transit; the Perris Valley Line fits into this category. There comes a point where CEQA abuse in the name of NIMBY obstruction needs to be controlled.

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