Feb 9 (Reuters) - California's high-speed rail project faces another challenge after a group of counties and activists filed a lawsuit on Monday to overturn a decision they said fails to apply state environmental law to a segment of the train's route.
Two counties and five non-profit organizations from the Central Valley and the Bay Area filed the joint lawsuit in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal.
They seek to strike down a December decision by the federal Surface Transportation Board that put federal jurisdiction over California environmental regulations with regard to a segment of the rail line that travels from Fresno to Bakersfield.
"This is about whether California gets to protect its own environment for its own rail system," said David Schonbrunn of the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund.
The petitioners argue that California environmental law should apply to the state's high-speed rail project, a planned train line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, scheduled for completion in 2029 and costing an estimated $68 billion.
By ignoring the state's environmental law, the High-Speed Rail Authority and its contractors could "inflict significant harm to lands and communities along its rail lines," petitioners contend.
In response to the filing, High-Speed Rail Authority spokesperson Lisa Marie Alley said the authority was "following the law and the rules set before us."
The proposed 800-mile (1,287-km) route is the most ambitious high-speed rail projects planned in the United States, which lags behind Europe and Asia in fast trains, and would eventually carry passengers from San Diego to Sacramento at speeds exceeding 200 mph (320 kmh).
The project has been plagued by litigation since voters approved a $10 billion bond measure in 2008. In December, one of seven environmental lawsuits was settled, after the rail authority agreed to find an alternative route through Bakersfield. In October, the California Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit challenging the project's funding.
For many years, the voter-approved bond measure appeared to be the project's only source of money. But last year, the legislature agreed to pledge 25 percent of future cap-and-trade revenues, or funds paid by companies to offset carbon emissions, plus an additional $650 million.
Monday's lawsuit was filed by Kings and Kern counties, both located in the Central Valley, and non-profit organizations Kings County Farm Bureau, the Citizens for California High Speed Rail Accountability, the California Rail Foundation, the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund and the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail.
Reporting By Robin Respaut; Editing by Alan Crosby