Judge: Bullet train must ax route through South Bay, Peninsula, for now
Once again, a judge on Thursday ordered the state to scrap its plans to zip high-speed trains from Gilroy to San Jose and up the Peninsula, saying officials failed to show how the massive route would harm local traffic and homes.
Even so, the California High-Speed Rail Authority signaled it would reapprove the route along the Caltrain corridor after completing more studies to appease the judge. That could trigger yet another lawsuit, extending a three-year long legal battle against the polarizing $99 billion bullet train project.
The cities of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton don't want the elevated tracks to divide their communities, create an eyesore and lower property values. So they sued in October 2010 to ax the Bay Area route for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line. They prefer a railroad that would run through the East Bay and across the Dumbarton Bridge to San Francisco.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled that the rail authority must rescind the Peninsula route to study how the traffic in the far South Bay would suffer if the tracks force the elimination of lanes on Monterey Highway. He said it also needs to examine how Peninsula residents and roads would be handicapped by freight trains running closer to properties.
The same thing has happened before. The cities first sued in August 2008, and a year later Kenny ordered the rail authority to rescind the route and redo some of its planning. By September 2010, the rail authority had completed the extra studies and reapproved the same route, a decision that triggered the most recent lawsuit.
The lawsuit merry-go-round may not be over any time soon, though, said Stuart Flashman, the attorney for the cities, a group of Peninsula residents and two anti-bullet train groups.
"That may be the take-home message here, that the authority will have to keep doing this until they get it right," Flashman said. "I don't know how many times" we'll sue.
It's unclear if further court battles could delay the start of construction in the Central Valley, slated for next year, though the rail authority argued it was not a "major setback."
Despite the judge's main ruling, the rail authority released a statement claiming victory since Kenny rejected other allegations that its rider estimates were flawed, that underground tracks should be studied for the Peninsula and that an alternative route involving local highways deserves merit.
"The two biggest issues in these lawsuits were ridership and route alternatives, and the court ruled in our favor on both issues," said board chairman Tom Umberg. "Additional (studies) may be needed, but that work appears to be focused and manageable, and the authority will comply fully with" state environmental law.