Green transportation projects face costly, time-consuming environmental reviews

Transit agencies want to move fast on green infrastructure, but first legislature needs to act

Transit agencies across California are ready to move forward with more than three dozen green transportation projects, ranging from bus rapid transit lines to bike lanes. But unless the Legislature takes action, these projects could be mired in years of costly, time-consuming analysis and lawsuits on the basis that they are bad for the environment.

Those are the key findings from a new report by the urban planning think tank SPUR, providing yet another data point in the debate around the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The landmark 1970 law made California a global environmentalist leader by requiring disclosure of the environmental impacts of virtually every proposed urban development project, and providing mitigation measures. But it’s facing growing criticism for enabling lawsuits unrelated to the environment, like the one that nearly caused UC Berkeley to rescind thousands of undergraduate applications earlier this year.

The SPUR report assesses the impact of a 2020 bill, SB 288, that temporarily exempted certain green transportation projects from CEQA, preventing head-scratchers like San Francisco’s four-year pause on bike lane installation as it navigated environmental lawsuits. With SB 288 set to expire at the end of this year, transit agencies across the state are worried they’ll once again be subject to such lawsuits.

To avoid that fate, Sen. Scott Wiener has proposed an extension and expansion of SB 288, which the San Francisco-based senator also spearheaded. His new bill, SB 922, has passed the Senate environmental committee and awaits hearing before the full Senate and Assembly.

SB 922 would extend the CEQA exemption for light-rail, bus, walking and biking projects through 2030. It would require certain labor standards as well as anti-displacement analysis for large projects costing more than $100 million. Heavy rail projects like subways and high-speed rail would not be subject to the bill, nor would any project that would increase car travel.

“We’ve now tested it out and it’s been very successful,” Wiener said of SB 288. “It would be a tragedy if it expired at the end of this year.”

The SPUR report identifies 15 projects that benefited from SB 288, seven of which were in San Francisco. They include the transit-only lanes on Seventh and Eighth streets in SoMa, the Evans and Williams bike lanes in the Bayview and the “road diet” to improve safety on South Van Ness Avenue. Elsewhere in California, the bill is helping Culver City build bus and bike lanes, and Monterey County build a bus rapid transit line.

These projects would have been possible without CEQA streamlining, but they could have taken months or even years longer to complete, with commensurate increases in staff time and cost.

The report identifies an additional 38 projects whose planners are considering using SB 288, but are unable to because of the bill’s sunset date at the end of this year. They include bus priority signals in Tahoe, a 47-mile bike trail in Napa and bus-only lanes on San Pablo and Grand avenues in the East Bay. In San Francisco, extending the bill would continue to bolster San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s “quick build” program, benefiting transit improvement projects on Bryant, Polk and other streets.

More than half of the projects seeking CEQA streamlining involve electric or hydrogen bus charging infrastructure, including many located in highly polluted inland cities like Riverside and Fresno. Last year, California ramped up emissions reductions goals for transit agencies, and they’re now racing to meet those thresholds.

But right now, Wiener says, CEQA poses an impediment. “There are a lot of environmental goals that are going to be hard to meet if we don’t have streamlining,” he said.

Laura Tolkoff, transportation policy director for SPUR and the lead author of the report, said the bill would “make it possible to align our resources and our goals and get these projects in the ground.”

SB 922 is co-sponsored by groups that include California Transit Association, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and SPUR, and is supported by Mayor London Breed and SFMTA.

When it came before the Senate environment committee, the only listed opponent was the Sierra Club California. In a letter to the Legislature, the group wrote that SB 922 includes CEQA exemptions for “a broad range of projects that could have significant environmental impacts,” adding that the bill is “unnecessary and potentially harmful.”

On Tuesday, the group dropped its opposition to the bill, thanks to amendments that add a sunset date to the bill, prevent taxis from using transit-only lanes and clarified the definition of pedestrian improvements. The Sierra Club California declined to comment on this story.

While few transportation projects actually face CEQA lawsuits — fewer than 1%, according to a Caltrans study from 2017 — many are crafted specifically to head off the possibility of litigation or appeal.

“It’s not about how many lawsuits are filed,” Wiener said. “It’s about the fact that the constant fear and threat of lawsuits triggers more and more expensive and time-consuming CEQA processes so that it takes much longer and is more expensive than it would have been otherwise.”

Wiener calls CEQA “a very, very important law when it comes to assessing the impacts of projects that have the real potential to be environmentally harmful.” But, he said, “the idea that we don’t distinguish between expanding a highway and expanding bus service … that’s a problem.”

As California tries to get people out of their cars — the state’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions — cities will need to rapidly remake their transportation systems, Tolkoff said.

“We can’t just tell people to stop driving so much without actually giving them better ways to get around.” If SB 922 fails, Tolkoff added, “We’re going to continue having really strong aspirations to reduce our climate pollution, but not a lot of tools to actually change it.”

This story has been updated to reflect that Sierra Club California has dropped its opposition to SB 922.

bschneider@sfexaminer.com

A report indicates that 15 projects, including bus transit-only lanes along Seventh and Eighth Street, benefited from SB 288, which SB 922 aims to extend. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

A report indicates that 15 projects, including bus transit-only lanes along Seventh and Eighth Street, benefited from SB 288, which SB 922 aims to extend. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

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