The Surface Transportation Board (“STB”) issued a declaratory order in a 2-1 vote last Friday, finding that the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) is categorically preempted by federal law, as it relates to the Fresno to Bakersfield segment of the California High-Speed Rail Project (“HSR Project”).
Section 10501(b) of Title 49 of the United States Code provides that remedies with respect to rail transportation are exclusive and preempt remedies provided under State or Federal law. The STB has previously ruled that states or localities are precluded from intruding into matters directly regulated by the STB, in particular when the state or local action would have the effect of foreclosing or unduly restricting the rail carrier’s ability to conduct its operations or otherwise unreasonably burden interstate commerce.
Under this section, the STB could not overlook the fact that CEQA, as a state pre-clearance requirement, could ultimately deny or significantly delay the High-Speed Rail Authority’s (the “Authority”) right to construct a railroad line. This would directly defy the STB’s exclusive jurisdiction over a project that it regulates. Even if it could be argued that the Authority created an implied agreement by voluntarily beginning the CEQA process, the STB concluded that any such agreement would unreasonably interfere with interstate commerce because it would prevent the Authority from exercising its authority to construct the rail line, which it had been previously authorized to do by the STB.
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