Proposed California Law would Fast-Track Environmentally Sustainable Transit

June 15, 2020

Proposed California Law Would Fast-Track Environmentally Sustainable Transit - (SF Chronicle - June 15)

Transportation projects focused on public transit, bikes and pedestrians — but not cars — would get fast-tracked for construction under a bill Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, plans to announce on Monday.

His goal is two-fold: ramp up sustainable transportation and stimulate the economy.

“If we’re going to claw our way out of this economic collapse, public investment in infrastructure is a crucial strategy, and we need to get that investment out and implemented fast,” Wiener said. “We can’t afford delays.”

SB288, the Sustainable Transportation COVID-19 Recovery Act, would exempt “sustainable” transportation projects from challenges under CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, which mandates environmental protection as part of decision-making for all kinds of construction.

The bill would not benefit projects that help put more cars on the road. Instead it targets updated and new transit stations, bus rapid transit lines, safer streets for biking and walking, and repairs for bridge and transit storage facilities.

All of those are public projects. It also includes one type of private construction: installing new electric-vehicle charging stations, which must be accessible to the public.

“These are inherently pro-environmental, anti-climate change investments that don’t need to be subjected to lengthy review,” Wiener said. “Let’s streamline them and get that investment out fast to inject money into the economy and get people to work.”

The bill has backing from three heavyweight sponsors: the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Bay Area Council. Backers said that labor and environmental groups are also supportive and that they are not aware of any opposition.

“We see this as a no-cost stimulus,” said Laura Tolkoff, regional planning policy director at SPUR. “Many cities and counties already have funding dedicated for these projects that could be unlocked much more quickly.” Such funds come from voter-passed bond measures and sales taxes, for instance.

Some San Francisco initiatives already in the pipeline that could benefit, Tolkoff said, are the Fulton Street Safety & Transit Project, the Embarcadero Enhancement Project and the Excelsior Neighborhood Traffic Calming Project.

California has 1.6 million transportation jobs, many of which could be impacted as beleaguered cities, counties and the state itself slash budgets amid the coronavirus economic devastation — and if commuters continue to avoid public transit.

As cities reopen, many planners fear that workers will take to their cars rather than use transit, thus clogging up roadways.

“Speeding up the delivery of environmentally friendly and sustainable public transportation projects will help put the brakes on polluting traffic as the region’s economy begins to reopen and commuters return to work,” Jim Wunderman, CEO of the Bay Area Council, said in a statement.

The bill does not entirely sidestep CEQA. It still requires that the overarching plan behind projects already have CEQA approval, but specific projects that are part of those plans can get the fast-track authorization.

Projects must pass certain criteria to win the bill’s CEQA exemptions. They must be located on public rights of way in areas that are already urbanized. If they are large, they must be part of a regional transportation plan.

CEQA lawsuits can delay projects by one to five years, Wiener said. Each year’s delay adds 4% to costs, Tolkoff said. Studies have found that the majority of CEQA lawsuits are filed by groups that are not involved in environmental advocacy and often have other agendas for seeking to stop or slow projects.

For example, makeovers of Van Ness Avenue and of Geary Boulevard to build express bus lanes ended up taking years in part because of CEQA challenges, Wiener said. Even projects that don’t face lawsuits can mean hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars spent on environmental impact reports, he said.

“Fast-tracking some of California’s most sustainable transportation and complete streets projects would bring jobs, revive local economies, and result in improved safety, less pollution, reduced traffic and enhanced public health,” Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said in a statement.