High-speed rail can’t skimp on review process 

The project to link Southern and Northern California with a high-speed rail system has gone through many cost estimates over the years. Five months ago, for example, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration announced the project’s price tag had risen as high as $98.5 billion, in a sign that, Brown and the California High-Speed Rail Authority hoped, would demonstrate a new commitment to financial transparency.

Instead, people and politicians around the state balked at the new figures, and a long-anticipated proposal that the state Legislature add another $2.3 billion in rail-bond funds seemed in jeopardy. Brown quickly promised that his administration would find a way to cut costs.

Now, we’ve gotten a glimpse of this new way. Under the new plan, the price tag has dropped to
$68.4 billion, largely due to a new design that routes the high-speed rail line along existing lines in urban Los Angeles and the Bay Area. These tracks would be upgraded to withstand the stresses of high-speed rail, but would not carve out new swaths of rail line for the system.

Lopping $30 billion off the construction cost certainly sounds like a positive new development, but there’s a catch. Rerouting the lines means conducting new studies on how high-speed rail would impact the nearby communities and ecosystems. And that’s something the Brown administration, pressed by time and politics, would rather not do.

According to the Los Angeles Times, state officials have been in discussion with environmental groups — including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Planning and Conservation League Foundation — in order to secure a promise that they give the rail project a little leeway, instead of insisting that the entire panoply of environmental reviews be conducted according to state law.

Some of these conversations have involved merely skipping over certain technical details. But others have raised the possibility of “simplifying” the entire environmental review process. After all, what’s rerouting a multibillion-dollar bullet train between friends?

This newspaper has long supported high-speed rail as a key component in modernizing the state’s transportation infrastructure. And the state has but a few months to begin construction if it wants to qualify for billions in federal stimulus dollars.

But there’s a difference between supporting a project and supporting a project that ignores the possibly catastrophic effects it may have on its neighbors.

So far, the Brown administration has merely discussed the notion of streamlining the environmental review. It’s merely been a casual topic. Some chitchat over coffee.

We hope it stays that way. While the pressure to get the high-speed rail project moving on time is very real, there are also very real people who live near the proposed line, and they deserve to have their concerns heard.

Ever since voters approved a $9 billion bond to kick-start this project, and hoped that we’d find the rest of the money somewhere down the line, high-speed rail has been deformed by an odd combination of deadlines, politics and money. We hope rational planning and democracy won’t take a back seat in this process.

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