Tuesday, August 6, 2013
S.C. Says Light Rail Project on Westside May Continue
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday gave the go-ahead to completing construction of a 6.6-mile light rail system between Culver City and Santa Monica, holding that the environmental impact report—though viewed by four members as flawed—was legally sufficient.
The EIR, conducted by the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority, was grounded in projections of traffic, congestion and air quality in 2030. That was insufficient, according to a citizens’ group, Neighbors for Small Rail, which sought a writ of mandate under the California Environmental Quality Act to block the project.
It pointed out that an administrative regulation that says that existing conditions “will normally constitute the baseline physical conditions by which a lead agency determines whether an impact is significant.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Thomas I. McKnew Jr. spurned the challenge, and the Court of Appeal for this district affirmed in an opinion by Div. Eight of this district’s Court of Appeal. Meanwhile, construction is underway and is slated to be completed in 2015.
The Court of Appeal’s decision was upheld yesterday by a splintered court, with three opinions being filed.
Justice Kathryn Werdegar authored the majority opinion, joined in by Justices Joyce Kennard and Carol Corrigan. She acknowledged that focusing on present conditions, not anticipated future conditions, was the “norm,” but declared:
“A departure from this norm can be justified by substantial evidence that an analysis based on existing conditions would tend to be misleading or without informational value to EIR users.”
She immediately added:
“Here, however, the Expo Authority fails to demonstrate the existence of such evidence in the administrative record.”
But that defect, Werdegar declared, does not mean the project—the second leg of a system that will start with a 15-mile link between downtown Los Angeles and Culver City—must be abandoned.
The construction authority’s “abuse of discretion was nonprejudicial,” the jurist wrote, explaining:
“Under the particular facts of this case, the agency’s examination of certain environmental impacts only on projected year 2030 conditions, and not on existing environmental conditions, did not deprive the agency or the public of substantial relevant information on those impacts.”
Discretion Not Abused
Justice Marvin Baxter wrote a concurring and dissenting opinion in which he disputed the majority’s notion that the construction authority had abused its discretion. He was joined by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Ming Chin.
Baxter insisted that “the majority’s restrictions on agency discretion find no support in CEQA or in the regulations promulgated thereunder.”
Justice Goodwin Liu, in a concurring and dissenting opinion, agreed with the majority that the agency abused its discretion, but disagreed that the error was nonprejudicial. He said:
“[T]he fact that the project in 2030 is expected to have only a small effect on traffic congestion when compared to conditions in 2030 provides no reason to think that the project in 2015, at the start of operations, would have no greater impact when compared to conditions in 2015.
“The EIR compared measures of congestion in 2030 if the project is built to measures of congestion in 2030 if the project is not built. But the measures of congestion in 2030 if the project is not built reflect significant predicted increases in congestion due to population growth. Thus it is not surprising that the project is expected to have little impact on congestion in 2030 when measured against the heightened congestion expected in 2030. But that finding sheds no light on the extent or magnitude of the project’s traffic impacts when it begins to operate in 2015, before the predicted increase in congestion due to population growth from 2015 to 2030. Without knowing how significant this transient impact on traffic congestion might be, how are the public and decision makers to decide whether the short-term pain is worth the long-term gain promised by the light-rail project?”
The case is Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority, 2013 S.O.S. 3999.
Arguing the case before the Supreme Court were John M. Bowman of the Century City firm of Elkins Kalt Weintraub Reuben Gartside, who represented Neighbors for Smart Rail, and Robert D. Thornton of Nossaman’s Irvine office, presenting the case for the construction authority.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company