Summary of Ruling
The complete ruling can be downloaded from the Sacramento Superior Court's document server. Select 2008 (the year the lawsuit was filed), and enter the case number 80000022, then hit the search button. This will dredge up all the case documents, including the ruling dated August 26th, 2009. Here is a quick summary, with the plaintiffs' claims and the judge's respective rulings:
- The CHSRA's Final Program EIR failed to provide an adequate description of the project between San Jose and Gilroy (on or near Union Pacific's right of way adjacent to Monterey Highway) before selecting the Pacheco alignment. Ruling: in favor of Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA's cost estimates were inadequate and resulted in favoring the Pacheco alignment over the Altamont alignment. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA did not adequately consider "train-splitting" as an operational alternative that might make Altamont alignment operate as well or better than Pacheco alignment. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA's ridership analysis did not fairly evaluate the Pacheco and Altamont alignment alternatives, and was generally flawed. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA's analyses of biological impacts to the Grasslands Ecological Area (along the Pacheco alignment) and the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge (along the Altamont alignment) were inadequate, neither equal nor impartial, and lacking in detail. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA's analysis of growth-inducing impacts (a.k.a. sprawl) was inadequate for San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA's analysis of noise impacts on the peninsula was inadequate. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA's analysis of vibration impacts on the peninsula was inadequate. Ruling: in favor of Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA's analysis of visual impacts on the peninsula was inadequate. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA did not acknowledge the potential for extensive land taking (eminent domain) in peninsula communities. Ruling: in favor of Atherton et al. because of the related Union Pacific issue.
- The CHSRA's analysis of impact to mature and heritage trees along the peninsula right of way was inadequate. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA's analysis of alternatives was improperly biased towards the Pacheco alignment, and improperly determined that Altamont alternatives were infeasible. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA improperly omitted the possibility of reusing the existing Dumbarton rail bridge for the Altamont alignment, and overstated the difficulty of constructing the Altamont alignment. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA's analysis of alignments along highways 101 and 280 on the peninsula was deficient and improperly eliminated those options. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA failed to amend and recirculate the EIR after Union Pacific forcefully reiterated its position that its right of way was not available. Ruling: in favor of Atherton et al.
- The CHSRA failed to respond to Menlo Park's comment letter. Ruling: against Atherton et al.
While the plaintiffs will no doubt spin the favorable rulings on four of their contentions as a big victory, the fact remains that most of their contentions were found without merit, as evidenced by more red than green in the above summary. With Atherton et al. prevailing on this subset, largely on the back of the Union Pacific issue, some questions immediately come to mind.
Is the Pacheco Pass alignment being overturned in favor of Altamont? No. The CHSRA must now amend and recirculate its Bay Area to Central Valley EIR, in order to re-certify it under CEQA. The result is still likely to favor a Pacheco alignment, although the CHSRA will need to address in detail how it plans to circumvent Union Pacific's unwillingness to share its right-of-way.
Does this ruling stop HSR on the peninsula dead in its tracks? No. At worst, it may delay it a bit, possibly enough to miss the boat on federal stimulus funding.
Does this ruling prevent the CHSRA from continuing the San Francisco - San Jose project level EIR work, and will HNTB be told to stop work? Probably not. The work being performed at the project level could just as well be re-purposed to serve the "patching" of the program-level EIR. Tiering under CEQA allows a program-level EIR to be certified prior to project-level detailed work, primarily to relieve the agency preparing the material from having to delve into overwhelming detail too soon. However, that doesn't prevent the agency from going into more detail than is strictly required under CEQA for a program-level EIR, for example by continuing the project-level EIR work currently underway under the guise of fixing the program-level EIR.
What happens next? The program-level EIR will be amended, possibly with contingency material already prepared by the CHSRA as part of its project-level work on the San Francisco - San Jose section and especially the San Jose - Merced section, which includes the controversial stretch along Monterey Highway. The Union Pacific issue, now subject of an unrelated lawsuit, must be very high on the CHSRA's risk radar; it is very likely that mitigation of this risk would be well underway if not already completed.
Does this create another opportunity to sue? Yes. Once the amended EIR is re-certified under CEQA, there will be another opportunity for lawsuits, one which the increasingly entrenched HSR opposition is unlikely to pass up. Whether the entire EIR is back in play, versus just the amendments, is an important legal question that we won't pretend to answer here.
As always, keep in mind this is a blogger writing, not a lawyer. And pass some more popcorn around, will ya?