The California High Speed Rail Project and CSS
The California High Speed Rail (HSR) project is a proposed high speed rail system in the state headed by California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA). The project was approved by California voters on November 4, 2008, with the passage of Proposition 1A authorizing $9.95 billion in general obligation bonds for the project. The CHSRA is currently tasked with completing final planning, design and environmental efforts. When built, high speed trains capable of 220 mph (350 km/h) are anticipated to link San Francisco and Los Angeles in roughly two hours and 40 minutes.
Resources and References are available at the end of this article.
Context Sensitive Solutions
Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) is defined as a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders to develop a transportation project that fits its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic and environmental resources while maintaining safety and mobility.
Before the CSS process became widely used, engineers carried out transportation projects with guidance from state agencies to meet goals usually related to safety or increasing capacity. Historic preservationists often recall how transportation projects have ripped through communities with little regard for cultural assets or community values. These projects often caused battles with state departments of transportation and, over time, led to the development of a more sensitive approach to design known as Context Sensitive Solutions.
CSS grew out of the public demand for more involvement in decisions about transportation projects that affect local communities. More and more, citizens want a say in how transportation improvements fit into the character of their communities, and they are challenging the plans of highway engineers. A department of transportation’s (DOT) credibility is questioned constantly, and engineers are learning that stopping projects after 30 percent of the design work is complete is neither good business nor a wise investment of taxpayer dollars. By using CSS, DOTs are discovering that it’s important to ensure early and continuous public involvement during the design process.
CSS and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) work well together. Their processes are almost identical, and they share the same goal: selecting the best alternative. Both programs provide an interdisciplinary framework for considering the impacts of transportation programs and projects on the natural, built and human environment. CSS differs from NEPA in that it requires a broad-based collaboration among stakeholders and seeks to incorporate the public’s involvement from the very earliest states of project development, whereas NEPA relies more heavily on various agencies to conduct the early conversations.
The core CSS principles outlined below apply to transportation processes, outcomes and decision making:
- Strive toward a shared stakeholder vision to provide a basis for decisions
- Demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of contexts
- Foster continuing communication and collaboration to achieve consensus
- Exercise flexibility and creativity to shape effective transportation solutions, while preserving and enhancing community and natural environments
CSS is guided by a process which:
- Establishes an interdisciplinary team early, including a full range of stakeholders, with skills based on the needs of the transportation activity
- Seeks to understand the landscape, the community, valued resources and the role of all appropriate modes of transportation in each unique context before developing engineering solutions
- Communicates early and continuously with all stakeholders in an open, honest and respectful manner, and tailors public involvement to the context and phase
- Utilizes a clearly defined decision-making process
- Tracks and honors commitments throughout the life cycle of projects
- Involves a full range of stakeholders (including transportation officials) in all phases of a transportation program
- Clearly defines the purpose and seeks consensus on the shared stakeholder vision and scope of projects and activities, while incorporating transportation, community and environmental elements
- Secures commitments to the process from local leaders
- Tailors the transportation development process to the circumstances and uses a process that examines multiple alternatives, including all appropriate modes of transportation, and results in consensus
- Encourages agency and stakeholder participants to jointly monitor how well the agreed-upon process is working, to improve it as needed, and when completed, to identify any lessons learned
- Encourages mutually supportive and coordinated multimodal transportation and land use decisions
- Draws upon a full range of communication and visualization tools to better inform stakeholders, encourage dialogue and increase credibility of the process
CSS leads to outcomes that:
- Are in harmony with the community and preserve the environmental, scenic, aesthetic, historic and natural resource values of the area
- Are safe for all users
- Solve problems that are agreed upon by a full range of stakeholders
- Meet or exceed the expectations of both designers and stakeholders, thereby adding lasting value to the community, the environment and the transportation system.
- Demonstrate effective and efficient use of resources (people, time, budget,) among all parties
Benefits of CSS
CSS improves projects by:
- Shortening the process, expediting permit approval and project development
- Lowers administrative and mitigation costs and leading to cost-effective environmental benefits
- Creating a better business climate
- Building public support through group decisions that "stick" more than individual decisions
- Improving project quality and limiting redesigns
- Improving relationships with resource agencies, advocacy groups and communities
CSS on the National Level
During the 1990s highway design changed rapidly throughout the United States. Highway designers and builders learned that they must be more sensitive to the impact of highways on the environment and communities. New and better ways of designing highways began evolving following the completion of the U.S. Interstate system, based on growing interest in the improvement of highways and their integration into the communities they serve.
Following the substantial completion of the U.S. Interstate system, the transportation focus for many states shifted to congestion management and system preservation projects that involve existing facilities. Most of these existing facilities were substantially developed, and transportation improvement projects affected this development. Working with community stakeholders to preserve and enhance the human and natural environment thus became a significant component of these projects. To best address the challenges of these projects, many state transportation agencies and professional organizations began implementing a Context Sensitive Solutions approach for planning and project development.
Milestones in the history of CSS show how the field has evolved, beginning in 1969 with the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires transportation agencies to consider adverse impacts of road projects on the environment. Momentum was gained in May 1998 when the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration conducted "Thinking Beyond the Pavement: National Workshop on Integrating Highway Development with Communities and the Environment While Maintaining Safety and Performance."
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) advanced CSS implementation nationwide by identifying "Environmental Stewardship and Streamlining" as one of its three "Vital Few Goals" in 2003. This goal included an objective to incorporate Context Sensitive Solutions into planning and project development in all 50 states by 2007.
The FHWA and partners launched a nationwide CSS Web site in 2004 and added CSS language in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFE-TEA-LU) in 2005, which governs all federal surface transportation spending.
The State of the Practice
With society’s changing expectations of state departments of transportation, traditional approaches to highway and structure constructions are altering to be more context sensitive in both design and method. The public expects state DOTs to expand their responsibilities to address the impacts on communities and environment, as well as safety and mobility. The opinions, views and values of citizens and stakeholders are essential in developing the best solutions and travel choices for society.
This new approach challenges state DOTs to balance the competing needs with limited resources. The CSS philosophy seeks to understand the larger context, including physical, social, economic, community, political and cultural impacts, and to find the right transportation solution for the particular context.
Political Climate and HSR
President Obama has made high speed rail one of his top priorities for his presidency. His vision is to transform the nation’s transportation system by rebuilding existing rail infrastructure while launching new high speed passenger rail services in 100- to 600-mile corridors that connect U.S. communities. Interstate highways and U.S. aviation systems were built in a similar way during the 20th century.
Obama’s plan for HSR is to promote economic expansion (including new manufacturing jobs), create new choices for travelers, reduce national dependence on oil, and foster urban and rural community development.
Ten corridors have been identified for federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). California’s project is considered one of the favorites to receive the most money since the system has been in development for more than 10 years and because the state’s voters approved a $9 billion dollar bond.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is supportive of HSR and CSS. At his confirmation hearing he said one of his main policies will be ensuring "a commitment to the principles that some refer to as livability; that is, investing in a way that recognizes the unique character of each community. The era of one-size-fits-all transportation projects must give way to one where preserving and enhancing unique community characteristics, be they rural or urban, is a primary mission of our work rather than an afterthought."
CEQA and NEPA Laws
The process of building construction projects In the United States is regulated by state laws known as CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and federal laws known as NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). These laws will be applied to the construction of the high speed rail project in California.
The environmental impact report (EIR) required under CEQA and the environmental impact statement (EIS) under NEPA are similar documents, yet they have some crucial differences. For example, CEQA requires the best alternative to be followed unless the lead agency identifies specific policy reasons justifying a less environmentally protective alternative, whereas NEPA simply requires that the impacts of each alternative be listed.
Under NEPA, an agency can list all reasonable alternatives and choose the worst one for the environment. Under CEQA the lead agency is required to analyze the environmental impact of the project, but also must look to the impacts of reasonable alternatives, including a "no project alternative." The lead agency must identify the environmentally superior alternative, which in many cases will be the "no project alternative." When this is the case, the lead agency must also identify the next best environmentally superior alternative. The lead agency is free to choose whichever alternative it wants, including projects with greater environmental impact, but when doing so must adopt a "Statement of Overriding Considerations" which states that, although adverse impacts may result, specific overriding economic, legal, social, technological or other considerations outweigh the project’s significant, unmitigated impacts.
If a major project is seeking approval in California, it must do both an EIR and an EIS, but both can be combined into one document (since the EIR and EIS have the same elements for the most part). The California HSR project’s Program Level EIR/EIS statement was certified on July 2008.
Below is a graphic that shows the process for CEQA and public input. There is a link to the original flow chart in the references section. The online version of the chart allows the user to click on each box in the flow chart and learn more information about each step.
The current process allows for public input, but there are significant problems with this process. In a 1997 review of CEQA conducted by California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), a nonpartisan panel of fiscal and policy advisers), various stakeholders in the process were interviewed and identified these areas of concern:
- The process is cumbersome and unpredictable for large projects that require an EIR (such as the HSR project).
- Processes to challenge decisions made under CEQA and to resolve disputes are costly and time-consuming and are sometimes used to create unnecessary project delays.
The report finds that the CEQA process generates useful information about potential environmental impacts and allows for public involvement. However, the results could be achieved more effectively by improving efficiency, thereby reducing the cost and time to both project developers and public agencies to comply with CEQA’s requirements.
The LAO suggested the use of information technology to improve the process. Given that this report was written in 1997 and there are no reports on this topic discussing current technologies, we can safely assume that the tremendous growth of the Internet and wiki-type applications would have a tremendous impact on CEQA.
To find out more about how the Internet and wiki-type applications can be used to improve CEQA and NEPA, read this article by Beth Simone Noveck, who is President Obama’s chief technology officer. (NOTE that we only have permission to show the first paragraph with a link to the rest, but you can get the whole thing without joining the site by clicking on the PDF on the right.)
CSS Web site created by Project for Public Spaces in collaboration with Scenic America to assist the Federal Highway Administration: www.contextsensitivesolutions.org/
Federal Highway Administration on CSS: www.fhwa.dot.gov/context/index.cfm
California Legislative Analyst’s Office on Making CEQA Work Better:
Obama’s Vision for Rail in America: http://www.fra.dot.gov/Downloads/RRdev/hsrspfacts.pdf
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood’s Testimony on January 21, 2009:
CSS Principles and Qualities by The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA):
Read Bill Cutler’s definitive piece on CSS, which was distributed at the PCC Teach-In on September 12, 2009.
Learn more about the history of CSS, its use on the Peninsula and the national vision for high speed rail.
See CSS PowerPoint presentations made on November 4, 2009 by Hal Kassoff of Parsons Brinckerhoff and Bruce Fujuki of the Peninsula Rail Project
This summary was prepared by Nadia Naik of Californians Advocating Responsible Railroad Design, using information from the sources listed above.