A Sacramento County Superior Court judge is expected to rule Friday on whether the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) must halt environmental impact studies for the Peninsula and South Bay portions of the project.
At a Friday afternoon hearing, Judge Michael Kenny will hear oral arguments from high-speed rail attorneys and the legal team representing Menlo Park, Atherton and four conservation groups that filed a joint lawsuit against the project in 2008.
Kenny is expected to issue a ruling on whether to halt the project's environmental work currently underway on the corridor between San Francisco and Merced.
The lawsuit challenges the CHSRA's selection of the Pacheco Pass as the route for trains to access the Bay Area from the Central Valley. The group contends that the CHSRA did not conduct adequate environmental impact studies before deciding to run trains up the Peninsula, rather than in the East Bay through the Altamont Pass.
The proposed Pacheco Pass route runs through Menlo Park and Atherton, and would use the existing Caltrain right-of-way. Residents in both cities have expressed opposition to having high-speed trains whizzing through the area.
After reviewing environmental impact reports for the project, Kenny ruled in August that more information is needed for the section between San Jose and Gilroy, because of right-of-way issues on Union Pacific railroad tracks. At Friday's hearing, Kenny will determine whether environmental work must be halted, or stayed, while the lawsuit moves forward.
Stuart Flashman, an attorney for the group, said continuing to spend money and staff hours studying the Pacheco Pass while the lawsuit seeks to take another look at the Altamont Pass "makes a farce out of reconsidering the decision."
CHSRA board members need more information than what is provided in existing environmental impact reports to make an informed decision, he said.
"If they continue with project-level studies, they're simply increasing the bias to continue on," he said of the existing Pacheco Pass route.
CHSRA Deputy Director Jeff Barker said that granting a stay on the project is unnecessary and could cost the state funding and jobs.
"We don't believe that anyone is interested in jeopardizing billions of dollars in economic stimulus for California or delaying the creation of tens of thousands of jobs here," he said.
In Nov. 2008, voters approved $9.95 billion in bond money for the project's first phase. Since that sum would not be adjusted for inflation, rail advocates argue that this sum's purchase power decreases with each delay to the project. Last Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger formally submitted California's application for $4.7 billion in federal funds for the project.
Barker also said that a stay, usually granted in cases where potential environmental harm is imminent, doesn't apply in this early planning stage.
A brief filed Oct. 5 by the CHSRA states "these are studies, not bulldozers or shovels that could harm the physical environment."
The high-speed rail project would create an electrified system of bullet trains eventually running from Sacramento and San Francisco down to Los Angeles and San Diego.
In addition to Palo Alto and Menlo Park, the groups participating in the lawsuit are: the Planning and Conservation League; Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund; California Rail Foundation; and BayRail Alliance.