Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) this week called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to require at least three wildlife overpasses as part of federal approval of the private Brightline West high-speed rail project.
The current project design would create a 180-mile impenetrable barrier across the California desert, completely inhibiting protected wildlife such as bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, mountain lions and the Mojave ground squirrel from crossing into their federally protected habitat including the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park.
Brightline, Caltrans and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife last month announced an informal agreement to fund and design wildlife overpasses, but that agreement is time-limited and not legally binding.
“I am deeply concerned that there are numerous ways that this agreement could dissolve due to any lack of requisite funding, potential project delays beyond the two-year life of the agreement, or should ownership of the project change (as it has several times in the past two decades),” Senator Feinstein wrote. “Should any other unforeseeable changes or problems occur, there is nothing to prevent the beginning of construction this fall without any plans to build the overpasses.
“It is essential, therefore, that these mitigation measures be required in federal permitting documents.”
Full text of the letter is here and follows:
March 6, 2023
The Honorable Pete Buttigieg
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20590
Dear Secretary Buttigieg,
As the Federal Rail Administration (FRA) conducts a re-evaluation of the 2011 Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision for Brightline West under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), I urge you to ensure the inclusion of three wildlife overpasses as required environmental mitigation. As you may know, on February 15 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), Caltrans, and Brightline announced a non-binding agreement to construct the overpasses to mitigate Brightline West’s impacts on endangered desert species. While I appreciate progress on the issue, this mitigation is essential to California desert species and therefore must be guaranteed in federal permitting documents.
Brightline’s current project design has high-speed trains running 180 miles between Las Vegas, Nevada and Victorville, California, along the center divider of the Interstate 15 highway, with the large majority of the rail line in California. As I noted in my August letter to FRA Administrator Amit Bose (attached), the best available science shows that the design would create a new and impenetrable barrier across the California desert, completely inhibiting federally and state protected wildlife such as bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, mountain lions, and the Mojave ground squirrel from crossing the highway into their federally protected habitat ranges including the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley National Park. Scientists at Oregon State University have used GPS tracking collars to unequivocally confirm that bighorn sheep cross the existing highway at three locations along I-15 and that the construction of wildlife overpasses at these locations would effectively mitigate the impenetrable barrier the rail line will create. A letter reiterating scientists’ concerns is also attached.
Candidly, hardening the existing highway barrier by adding six-foot concrete walls topped by chain link fences will have significant detrimental impacts on these species, impacts which must be addressed in the forthcoming NEPA document.
In recognition of these necessary mitigations, CDFW, Caltrans, and Brightline reached a two-year informal agreement to design and fund these overpasses as part of the project’s construction. As part of this agreement, Caltrans agreed to fund up to 75 percent of the $125 million they estimate it will cost to construct the overpasses and to maintain them, Brightline agreed to provide in-kind services such as design and construction management, and together they plan to apply for federal funding. I am pleased that both Brightline and California recognize the need for the overpasses and appreciate their work to date to move forward on an agreement.
However, I am deeply concerned that there are numerous ways that this agreement could dissolve due to any lack of requisite funding, potential project delays beyond the two-year life of the agreement, or should ownership of the project change (as it has several times in the past two decades). Should any other unforeseeable changes or problems occur, there is nothing to prevent the beginning of construction this fall without any plans to build the overpasses.
It is essential, therefore, that these mitigation measures be required in federal permitting documents. Brightline has notified me of their intent to apply for billions in federal grants through the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail program with the Nevada Department of Transportation. Unfortunately, their application is currently silent on the topic of the overpasses. While I have long advocated for high-speed rail, this is significant funding that must be supported by federally required environmental mitigations regardless of whether or not the funds are awarded. I urge you to structure these mitigation measures such that the agreement carefully negotiated by California and Brightline may fulfill the requirements, while also providing a safeguard should the agreement fail to produce the necessary overpasses during construction.
Thank you for your attention to this important issue, which is essential to the survival of California’s desert wildlife, safeguards federally protected habitat, and aligns with the Biden Administration’s conservation goals, including wildlife corridors. Please feel free to contact me directly should you have any questions or concerns.
United States Senator