SFMTA appeals bring emergency projects to a near-halt

Critics say programs such as Slow Streets and transit-only lanes should undergo environmental review

Twin Peaks was once one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations. Buses would bring visitors by the dozen to marvel at the panoramic view, and lines of rideshares would wind up the curvy road to drop off passengers who didn’t want to tackle the uphill by foot.

But when shelter-in-place began, The City decided to close Twin Peaks Boulevard to cars, turning the iconic locale into a public space for homebound residents to exercise or get fresh air.

Critics say this action — which was led by the Recreation and Parks Commission — along with the entire rollout of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Slow Streets program was illegal.

The Coalition of Adequate Review and David Pilpel have collectively filed five appeals asserting the SFMTA and the Planning Department violated state laws by implementing programs such as Slow Streets, bikeways and transit-only lanes without environmental review required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

While the Slow Streets appeal was unanimously rejected by the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 1, four others have yet to be heard.

The appeals have been succesful in halting work on these efforts since the end of July, in some cases. Local law requires a pause on projects in question, barring a health or safety hazard, once a CEQA appeal is filed until the Board of Supervisors votes.

SFMTA officials say that means the agency’s resource-strapped staff must devote weeks to fighting the remaining four CEQA appeals instead of implementing additional street changes to make room for bikers and walkers, expanding priority for buses and altering loading zones to make testing sites or food pantries more accessible.

“Instead of doing the work needed to implement and evaluate these projects, they’re spending time on the appeal response instead,” said Sarah Jones, SFMTA Planning Director. “We’re having to push other projects out because we’re so booked up dealing with these appeals.”

Residents near Twin Peaks are contesting emergency measures initiated by San Francisco agencies during the pandemic . (Samantha Laurey/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Residents near Twin Peaks are contesting emergency measures initiated by San Francisco agencies during the pandemic . (Samantha Laurey/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Officials vehemently defend the work on the grounds they’re foundational parts of The City’s COVID-19 emergency response. CEQA provides a statutory exemption for actions that prevent or mitigate an emergency, allowing agencies to forego the otherwise time-consuming review process so they can respond quickly and effectively to disaster.

Jones characterizes SFMTA’s efforts as ways to ensure people can travel to essential work, get outside for mental and physical health while maintaining social distance and access life-giving resources such as food, medicine or viral testing.

The Planning Department, which signed off on the projects originally before they were implemented, has agreed.

“COVID-19 is a sudden and unexpected occurrence […] COVID-19 involves a clear and imminent danger and can cause damage to life and health,” Lisa Gibson, environmental review officer for the Planning Department, argued in response to claims from the appellants that the coronavirus doesn’t necessarily qualify as an emergency under CEQA.

Detractors, however, have a litany of concerns over the cumulative street changes: increased congestion, deleterious impact on small businesses that rely on car traffic, and emergency vehicle access, among numerous others.

“Closing Twin Peaks Boulevard has delivered no benefit to curbing COVID-19, including improved social distancing, and has severely driven up neighborhood crime, congestion, illegal parking, litter and late night disturbing alcohol-fueled partying,” one resident wrote in an email submitted with the Slow Streets appeal by the Coalition of Adequate Review.

Additionally, appellants doubted whether measures would actually abate challenges posed by COVID-19 and questioned the legality of making such decisions without public input.

“They make a Cloak of Invisibility in Dungeons and Dragons seem easily penetrable by comparison,” Pilpel wrote. “I recognize that these are most unusual times we are living in, but I am unwilling to allow unelected and unnamed bureaucrats to assume more power without any public scrutiny or sufficient control.”

Both the Board of Supervisors and SFMTA officials have emphasized these projects are approved only as temporary measures. They would end 120 days after the local state of emergency is lifted.

Should there be proposals to make any of the changes — or something similar — more permanent, they’ll be subject to the same CEQA review and public input processes that any other city project would be during non-emergency times.

“We feel it’s a high priority to get these resolved. I don’t think anybody wants to be in a situation where we can’t accommodate that,” Jones said.

The Board of Supervisors is tentatively set to hear the appeals on these projects on Sept. 22.


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