It is instructive that as farmers and municipalities file environmental lawsuits against the California High-Speed Rail Authority, Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to the Legislature that it quash such suits. This has infuriated environmentalists, and you can’t blame them. They know that blocking environmental suits to favor the rail authority could lead to blockades for other developers.
Environmentalists for years have used lawsuits to rain plague on developers and others who want the properties they own to be something other than wildlands. Governments have provided the environmentalists with this leeway. They can sue, and if they prevail, their lawyers collect fees from those who were sued and lost. However, if the environmentalists lose, those who were sued generally collect nothing.
Now, Brown is saying he would like to make it almost impossible for environmental lawsuits to stop the high-speed railway construction.
He probably knows if he doesn’t do that, the rail authority will have a tough time getting a qualified contractor to touch the project.
No American company so far is in the high-speed rail business. French, Spanish and Chinese contractors would like to build it, but not if they have to wait years for environmental lawsuits to be settled.
Also, no American company will be standing in line to build high-speed rail cars. San Francisco’s Bay Area Rail Transit system recently awarded a huge contract for new rail cars to the Canadian firm Bombardier. That firm promised to provide as many jobs for Americans on that project as possible, but not many of them will be Californians.
The real money in American railroading is in the freight business. American firms build freight cars and locomotives, because that’s where railroads make money.
Should freight railroads also be exempted from environmental lawsuits? You won’t see that happen any time soon, unless, of course, they are able to argue that providing lawsuit protection to the high-speed rail authority is a good legal precedent for them. The governor should be careful what he wishes for.