The Third District Court of Appeal held that the application of CEQA to the California High-Speed Train project was not preempted by federal law in Town of Atherton v. California High Speed Rail Authority (July 24, 2014, Case No. C070877). On the merits, the Court ruled in favor of the Authority on all claims, finding that the Authority’s program EIR wholly complied with CEQA.
As California’s plans for a high-speed train system have developed over the past two decades, the system’s alignment from the Central Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area became an area of contention. The particular dispute was over the Authority’s decision that trains travelling between the Central Valley and the Bay should travel through the Pacheco Pass, which turns west from between Fresno and Merced, rather than farther north at the Altamont Pass, which turns west from the Central Valley south of Stockton. According to the Authority’s corridor evaluation report, the Altamont Pass would require additional tracks to provide train service to San Jose, resulting in less frequent service to San Francisco and San Jose absent the provision of additional trains. Based upon this determination, the Authority prepared an EIR identifying the Pacheco Pass as the preferred alternative.
After a legal challenge to the initial EIR, the Authority revised its program EIR and again selected the Pacheco Pass route as the preferred alternative. The South Bay town of Atherton challenged the adequacy of the revised EIR and approval of the Pacheco Pass alternative, arguing that the program EIR violated CEQA because it (1) provided an inadequate analysis of the vertical profile options for alignment (i.e., where to elevate the track) along the San Francisco Peninsula; (2) used a flawed revenue and ridership model; and (3) had an inadequate range of alternatives because it rejected an alternative proposed by one expert consulting company.
Prior to oral argument, the Authority asked the court to dismiss the case, contending that federal law, specifically the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA), preempted any CEQA remedy. It argued that the ICCTA created exclusive federal regulatory jurisdiction and a federal agency, the Surface Transportation Board, had recently assumed jurisdiction over the High-Speed Train. The court found it did not need to decide whether the ICCTA preempts CEQA as to the train, however, because at least one exception to preemption applied here. Under the market participation doctrine, proprietary state actions are protected from federal preemption. The court found no evidence supporting the Authority’s contention that the market participant exception could only be asserted defensively. Accordingly, the court held that CEQA applies to the project and proceeded to address petitioners’ claims on the merits.
Adequacy of the Program EIR
The court next addressed petitioners’ claims regarding the adequacy of the program EIR. The court upheld the Authority’s use of a program EIR and held that the Authority properly deferred site-specific analysis, including the vertical alignment, to a later project EIR. The court stated that the precise vertical alignment of the train at specific locations is the type of site-specific consideration that must be examined in detail in a project-level EIR. Requiring such analysis at the program level, the court reasoned, would undermine the purpose of tiering and would create a burdensome level of detail in the larger-scale program EIR.
The court also held that the challenge to the revenue and ridership modeling presented a disagreement among experts that did not make the revised final project EIR inadequate. Petitioners failed to show that the Authority’s ridership model was “clearly inadequate or unsupported,” and the modelers had followed generally accepted professional standards. Thus, substantial evidence supported use of that model.
Finally, the court held that the Authority studied an adequate range of alternatives and was not required to analyze the Altamont Pass alternative proposed by petitioners’ consulting company, given that the alternative was substantially similar to the alternatives already studied and that range of alternatives was not shown to be inadequate.