California Court Upholds CEQA Baseline Composed of Future Conditions for Long-Term Rail Project

Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority

(2012) 204 Cal.App.4th 1480

In Neighbors for Smart Rail v. Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority (2012) 204 Cal.App.4th 1480, the Second Appellate District has joined the growing ranks of courts to apply CEQA's baseline concept following the California Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Communities for a Better Environment v. South Coast Air Quality Management District ("CBE").

The Smart Rail decision allows, arguably, a more robust baseline than its recent predecessors. The court upheld a baseline of predicted future conditions in 2030 to analyze traffic and air quality, where the record demonstrated the project would not be built for many years, and population and traffic in the vicinity were expected to swell in the interim.

The lawsuit arose from the Authority's efforts to construct a six-mile light rail line connecting Culver City, near downtown Los Angeles, with Santa Monica to the west. The rail line was one of a suite of infrastructure improvements committed to by 2030 under a regional transportation plan. Although the precise construction date apparently was uncertain, in no case would the rail line operate before the year 2015, at the earliest.

Given the intervening years until the project would be operational, the Authority found that population and traffic levels in 2009 (as the environmental review was prepared) were not a reasonable or helpful baseline against which to compare impacts. This was because traffic and air quality was expected to increase before the project would be built based on expected increases in population growth in the area. The Authority, accordingly, set the baseline according to projected traffic and air quality in 2030, the project's planning horizon.

Opponents challenged on the ground that the baseline should have reflected the conditions existing at the time the EIR was prepared. On appeal, the court first acknowledged, as sister courts had in recent decisions, that the physical conditions at the time the environmental review commences "normally" constitute the baseline. But unlike its predecessors, the Smart Rail court found that this was a proper case to use a more flexible approach:

As a major transportation infrastructure project that will not even begin to operate until 2015 at the earliest, its impact on presently existing traffic and air quality conditions will yield no practical information to decision makers or the public. An analysis of the environmental impact of the project on conditions existing in 2009, when the final EIR was issued (or at any time from 2007 to 2010), would only enable decision makers and the public to consider the impact of the rail line if it were here today... The traffic and air quality conditions of 2009 will no longer exist (with or without the project) when the project is expected to come on line in 2015 or over the course of the 20–year planning horizon for the project. An analysis of the project's impacts on anachronistic 2009 traffic and air quality conditions would rest on the false hypothesis that everything will be the same 20 years later.

The Smart Rail court devoted considerable discussion to distinguishing (and also criticizing, to some extent) other recent decisions that had rejected a future-conditions baseline, such as Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Sunnyvale City Council (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 1351, and Madera Oversight Coalition, Inc. v. County of Madera (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 48. According to the Smart Rail court, "[a] decision to measure environmental effects of a long-term project by looking at those effects in the long term is neither hypothetical nor illusory. It is a realistic and rational decision."

The Smart Rail decision may prove to be a milestone in the evolution of the CEQA baseline. Arguably it is the first of the recent series of baseline cases to fully embrace the principle that the baseline is a practical tool with the flexibility to be adapted to the widely varying factual situations. It also is sure to be reviewed carefully by public agencies charged with long-term transportation and infrastructure planning.

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