A bill signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom Monday will make it easier to win approval for projects such as protected bike lanes, pedestrian safety improvements and light rail and bus lanes. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

New law makes sustainable transit easier, faster and cheaper to implement

SB 288 will add a number of climate-friendly infrastructure projects to CEQA exemption list

A bill designed to prevent sustainable transportation projects from getting bogged down in laborious, time-intensive environmental review was signed into state law Monday by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Supporters of SB 288 believe it will make projects such as pedestrian safety tools, protected bike lanes, light rail and bus lanes easier and cheaper to implement as well as help the state fight climate change and promote economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus.

“It’s important now more than ever that we move swiftly to drastically cut down on carbon emissions, and that we all work together to spare the air. SB 288 will help get us back on track,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, who co-sponsored the legislation, said in a statement.

The California Environmental Quality Act is intended to ensure projects and permits across the state don’t cause environmental harm, but its lengthy review process can end up delaying otherwise climate-friendly transportation initiatives.

SB 288 would add a number of sustainable transportation projects to the list of CEQA statutory exemptions, which should streamline their approval and construction.

The law will help “limit carbon emissions by jumpstarting sustainable transportation projects across the state” and “put Californians back to work building these important, green infrastructure projects,” Wiener said in a statement.

As wildfires have ravaged the West Coast, Wiener and other supporters have emphasized the urgent need to encourage and facilitate climate-friendly development.

Gwen Litvak, senior vice president of the Bay Area Council, an economic development association that co-sponsored the bill, said that existing exemptions are “fairly narrow,” and “don’t cover some of the projects we really need to help get transit moving more quickly or bring down project costs.”

For example, she said, the current exemptions apply to passenger rail or commuter services on existing rights of way, but don’t specify bus rapid transit, light rail or buses.

Any project that claims to be sustainable won’t just receive CEQA exemption automatically. It would be subject to analyses that prove it is in fact, critically-needed to advance sustainable transit.

Guardrails exist within the bill to make sure only truly sustainable projects are exempted from CEQA. They include requirements that they be publicly owned, within an existing public right of way and urbanized area and can’t result in the demolition of affordable housing.

Projects over $100 million must also complete a racial equity analysis with suggestions for mitigations, provide a business case and host a minimum of two public meetings annually during construction.

SPUR and Silicon Valley Leadership Group, two regional groups, also co-sponsored the bill.

Litvak said examples of San Francisco projects that her organization hopes to see expedited with the signing of SB 288 include the Fulton Street Safety & Transit Project, the Embarcadero Enhancement Project, the Excelsior Neighborhood Traffic Calming Project and the Leavenworth Quick-Build Project, among others.

Backers of SB 288 say its impact will help usher San Francisco and all of California out of the COVID-19 economic shutdown by minimizing administrative costs — in terms of dollars, time and resources — as well as creating jobs and helping to craft a more sustainable, lasting vision for the state.

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