Local railroad politics have always inspired weird alliances. Think back just a few years ago, when the Arcata liberal political establishment-types of the day – John Woolley, Wes Chesbro, Dan Hauser – were strapped to a bunch of suspenders-wearing, pinstripe-capped choo-choo obsessives, running a three-legged race toward the eternally imminent restoration of freight train service to Humboldt Bay.
But even those bedfellows are not as strange as the ones that came together last week, when big Central Valley farming interests sided with the two local environmental groups – Friends of the Eel and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics – that are taking the state-run North Coast Railroad Authority to the California Supreme Court.
Both sides in that case have already filed their briefs to the State Supremes. To put their dispute as briefly as possible the enviro groups argue that the North Coast Railroad Authority must follow state environmental law because it is a public entity – a subdivision of the state. The railroad authority argues that it doesn’t have to follow state environmental law because it is a railroad, and states don’t get to tell railroads what to do. (The Outpost recapped their respective cases in greater detail here and here.)
The legal subtleties make this a saucy dish for a high court, but if you didn’t know how to read between the lines the facts of the matter would make it seem boring and provincial: a railroad that has existed mostly on paper for the last two decades, almost always near bankruptcy, fighting to keep itself alive in a bureaucratic sense, if not an actual one. In the last few weeks, though, the case’s docket has been invaded by players from outside the North Coast, and they are playing for very high stakes indeed.
That’s because the future of the California High-Speed Rail Project – Gov. Jerry Brown’s $68 billion-plus bid for immortality – hangs, in no small part, on what the Supreme Court ends up making of Friends of the Eel v. North Coast Railroad Authority. Friends and enemies of high speed rail are now picking sides in the dispute over our imaginary railroad.
The Fresno Bee notes that two Central Valley farming interests – the Madera County Farm Bureau and the Merced County Farm Bureau – have hopped into the fray … and on the side of the freak hippie Humboldt enviros! This is because the farmers, in their battle with the state over high-speed rail, are relying on the same argument that the hippies are relying on here: That a state railroad agency may not ignore the California Environmental Quality Act. So the farm bureaux have filed friends-of-the-court briefs arguing that the Supreme Court must rule for the enviros.
“We can’t afford not to have CEQA in place to protect our members, other businesses and residents in both counties from [high-speed rail’s] major impacts,” the Madera County Farm Bureau chief tells the Bee. If you know anything about Central Valley water politics, this is a strange turn of affairs indeed.
It’s happening on the other side, too, with all the high-speed rail amicus curae pouring reams of paper into the docket. For instance: The state itself. The Brown Administration doesn’t care about the North Coast Railroad Authority, but it does care very much about the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The California Attorney General’s Office will write a brief arguing that state-owned railroads can safely ignore CEQA. At the same time, the California Attorney General’s Office will also write another brief arguing that they cannot ignore CEQA – this time representing the California Environmental Protection Agency!
It was foreseen from the start that the big money fight over high-speed rail would horn its way into this case. The State Supreme Court only agreed to the Friends’ of the Eel’s appeal because of contrary appellate-level rulings. In the NCRA case, an appellate court ruled that state railroads trumped state law; in the high-speed rail case, an appellate court held that state law trumped state railroads. So now the two cases are linked, and the California High Speed Rail project may sink or swim depending on how well the NCRA presents its case in court. God help it!