In Case You Missed It: California's Runaway Train

Thursday, May 18, 2017

By WSJ Editorial Board / The Wall Street Journal / May 17, 2017

Democratic Governors are demanding that Washington recognize their sovereign powers under the Constitution, but their born-again federalism is often more convenient than principled. Consider California Governor Jerry Brown, who is importuning the White House to yield oversight of his state’s bullet train.

On Friday the Governor sent President Trump a letter asking to “delegate to the state authority” under the National Environmental Policy Act. Mr. Brown cited an executive order by Mr. Trump directing the White House Council on Environmental Quality to identify “high-priority” public works and expedite procedures for “completion of environmental reviews and approvals for such projects.”

The state high-speed rail authority has complained that construction is being delayed in part due to revisions by the Federal Railroad Administration to its environmental documents. The FRA has provided $3.2 billion in seed funding for the 500-mile train, and an internal FRA analysis last November found that the first 118-mile stretch through the Central Valley was running 50% over budget and seven years behind schedule. Federal bureaucrats make nice scapegoats. But according to the FRA report, the biggest delays have been caused by the California rail authority’s late paperwork.

Environmental litigation has also snarled construction, and the rail authority claims it need not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). In 2014 the federal Surface Transportation Board exempted the bullet train from CEQA, but a California appellate court subsequently held otherwise. The authority is now arguing before the California Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that federal environmental review pre-empts CEQA.

But wait—this appears to contradict Jerry’s request that the feds cede authority over environmental reviews to the state. This would allow the rail authority to essentially grade its own homework. Everything is perfect, trust us.

California’s rail authority has a history of cutting corners, and the Governor has helped it evade parental supervision. Last September Mr. Brown vetoed a bill passed unanimously by the state legislature that would have imposed increased accountability.

Meanwhile, the Governor is begging the Trump Administration for more federal cash to build the $64 billion (and counting) boondoggle—but please, no strings attached.