Governor Brown Proposes Weakening Environmental Review on California’s Largest Infrastructure Projects

The development of high speed rail and major water infrastructure projects for the Bay Delta are clearly top priorities for Governor Brown. Brown sees such projects as major job creators that will help usher California into the future. Although this may be true, these mega-projects are also exorbitantly expensive, have great potential to become environmentally devastating and, at present, may be headed for failure.

According to a new poll, the $69 billion High Speed Rail (HSR) project is quickly losing support. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times survey released last Saturday found 55 percent of voters want to see the high speed rail bond issue (that was approved in 2008) back on the ballot today. Moreover, 59 percent of people polled say they would now vote against the measure.

Likewise, the major water infrastructure plans, such as the proposed peripheral canal or tunnel, are not faring any better. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which is supposed to analyze the proposed water conveyance facility, is now facing a serious delay in the release of materials. This is another setback for the estimated $20 billion project and means that after six years and more than $150 million spent, there remains no officially proposed project.

Now, in a last-ditched effort to help these projects, Governor Brown is working to expedite the environmental review process under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). By easing legal scrutiny under the state’s landmark environmental law, Brown believes it will be easier to break ground on the High Speed Rail project. What’s more, PCL has heard rumors that the Administration may also work with the Legislature to pursue a similar weakening of environmental review for water infrastructure in the Delta as part of a package deal of reforms. Both of these projects represent the largest of their kind in North America with potential for massive environmental impacts, suggesting they are precisely the type of projects that must undergo rigorous environmental review. As happened last year, these proposals (if they happen) will be in the form of controversial ‘gutting-and-amending’ of existing non-related legislation, circumventing standard procedures for review and limiting public transparency and engagement.

Addressing California’s water and transportation needs in a thoughtful manner is critical for California’s environmental and economic future; limiting environmental review and circumventing public process, however, raises serious concerns about these projects. PCL will keep you informed as these policies move forward through the Legislature and Administration.