The Press Enterprise Editorial, May 28, 2013
Expedience does not justify carving another special loophole in the state’s environmental law. Riverside County transportation officials should dump an effort to get state legislators to bypass an adverse local court ruling, and focus instead on resolving the issues raised in the court decision.
Members of the Riverside County Transportation Commission last week urged legislators to help the commission circumvent a court decision that has delayed a commuter rail project. But a local solution that ends the case and allows the rail plans to move ahead would be a far more effective — and practical — approach. The commission wants to add a $232.7 million expansion to the Metrolink system, which would extend the rail line 24 miles from Riverside to Perris.
Friends of Riverside’s Hills in 2011 sued the commission under the California Environmental Quality Act, charging that the environmental report for the rail project was inadequate. A Riverside County Superior Court judge this month said the document failed to properly address a series of issues, including construction noise and “wheel squeal” from commuter rail operations. The judge gave the commission 90 days to come up with fixes for the flaws in the environmental report.
The commission should use that time to address the concerns the judge listed, and try to end the legal wrangle. Instead, commissioners — elected officials from Riverside County and its cities — want legislators to grant the project a special exemption from the rules.
But frustration at a legal setback does not warrant more mindless tinkering with the environmental law. The California Environmental Quality Act requires public agencies to study the environmental effects of development plans, and take steps to avoid or remedy any damage. The law’s provisions can be frustratingly ambiguous, leading to confusion, inconsistency and conflict. And the law’s vague wording can invite abusive lawsuits that tie up projects over minor technicalities.
However, the state will not clarify the law or end abuses of it by cutting yet another loophole for a pet project. Legislators skirted the environmental law to aid NFL stadium proposals in 2009 and 2011. Another bill in 2011 allowed the governor to protect some projects, on a case-by-case basis, from legal challenges under the environmental act. Such changes subvert the law instead of improving it, by focusing on political favors rather than environmental protection. And giving a pass to projects with enough clout and money behind them is unfair to everyone else.
The transportation commission worries that the legal delays will add to the cost of the project and threaten $75 million in federal tax funding for the rail line. But the most realistic approach available is to resolve the legal issues so the project can proceed. The commission’s appeal to the Legislature is an unlikely gambit, as well as an unsavory special-interest tactic that seeks political advantage regardless of the public policy consequences.
A local resolution of the Metrolink expansion issues would be a far better solution. The environmental law needs clarification and streamlining, not more single-project exemptions.