California Capitol Watch: New CEQA Exemptions for Designated Transit-Related Projects

By Eric Gelber

This installment of California Capitol Watch discusses SB 288 (Wiener), which took effect on January 1st and creates new CEQA exemptions for certain classes of qualifying transit-related projects until January 1, 2023.

What issue/problem does the new law address?

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) provides a process for evaluating the environmental effects of applicable projects undertaken or approved by public agencies. If a project is not exempt from CEQA, an initial study is prepared to determine whether the project may have a significant effect on the environment.

The legislative findings and declarations accompanying SB 288 assert, in part, that:

  • There are approximately 1.6 million transportation workers statewide. These jobs are also increasingly at risk as the COVID-19 pandemic has left transit and transportation agencies, cities, and the state with shrunken budgets. For the foreseeable future, transit and transportation agencies and cities will need to do more with less;

 

  • Investments in building public transit, complete streets, and bicycle lanes are proven job generators and can help California avoid an extreme and prolonged recession by growing and protecting jobs. Studies have shown that complete streets projects create an average of 10 jobs per one million dollars. Investments in public transportation result in an average of 13 jobs per one million dollars spent and have a 5 to 1 economic return;

 

  • California’s road to recovery cannot be crowded with cars. As other cities around the world are reopening their economies, they are experiencing a surge in driving. California will fail to meet its ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb pollution if auto traffic surges;

 

  • If California fails to prevent the surge in driving as the state reopens, it will continue to disadvantage the state’s most vulnerable populations. African American and Hispanic populations already shoulder a disproportionate burden of the state’s air pollution and have higher rates of the underlying conditions that make COVID-19 especially dangerous;

 

  • The way to prevent this surge in driving and put people to work quickly in high-quality jobs is by building out a transportation network that gets people where they need to go safely, reliably, and affordably. High-quality public transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects create a more equitable California by improving access to jobs, services, and medical care; saving lives by reducing collisions; improving transportation choices; reducing air pollution; and increasing household disposable income.

According to the author, “SB 288 will jumpstart sustainable transportation projects as an essential part of California’s economic recovery from COVID-19. Now is the time to accelerate common-sense projects that create jobs, revive local economies, improve transportation, connect communities, improve public health, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, SB 288 is a no-cost stimulus for the state.

“Many projects already have local funding. These targeted exemptions can shave project timelines by 6 months to 4 years, putting dollars–and people–to work more quickly. Better certainty and lower costs also make projects more competitive for federal funding. Additionally, investments in bicycle lanes, complete streets and public transit are proven job generators, creating 10-13 jobs per million dollars spent and a 5 to 1 economic return in direct and indirect spending. As cities around the world begin to reopen their economies, many are moving swiftly to invest in sustainable transportation and transit. With SB 288, California can continue its commitment to global leadership and more quickly deliver the safe and affordable transportation that people want and need.”

What SB 288 does

SB 288 extends the CEQA exemption for bicycle transportation plans for urbanized areas (essentially, cities or contiguous cities with a population of at least 100,000)–for restriping, bicycle parking and storage, improved intersection signal timing, and related signage–for nine years, until January 1, 2030.  It also repeals the former requirements for the lead agency to prepare a traffic and safety impact assessment and “to mitigate potential vehicular traffic impacts and bicycle and pedestrian safety impacts,” as conditions to using the exemption.

SB 288 also exempts the following transportation project types:

  1. a) Pedestrian and bicycle facilities, including bicycle parking, bicycle sharing facilities, and bikeways.
  2. b) Projects that improve customer information and wayfinding for transit riders, bicyclists, or pedestrians.
  3. c) Transit prioritization projects, as defined.
  4. d) A project for the institution or increase of new bus rapid transit, bus, or light rail service, including the construction of stations, on existing public rights-of-way or existing highway rights-of-way, whether or not the right-of-way is in use for public mass transit.
  5. e) The maintenance, repair, relocation, replacement, or removal of any utility infrastructure associated with a project listed above.
  6. f) A project to construct or maintain infrastructure to charge or refuel zero-emission transit buses, as specified.
  7. g) A project that combines any of the components of a project listed above.
  8. h) A project carried out by a city or county to reduce minimum parking requirements.

Projects exceeding $100,000,000 must also meet all of the following criteria: a) The project is incorporated in a regional transportation plan, sustainable communities strategy, general plan, or other plan that has undergone a programmatic-level environmental review within 10 years of the approval of the project. b) The lead agency completes and considers the results of a project business case and a racial equity analysis. c) The lead agency holds specified public meetings.

These exemptions apply for only a two-year period, sunsetting on January 1, 2023, and are subject to several qualifying conditions that apply to all the exemptions with the exception of city and county projects to reduce minimum parking requirements.  These conditions include that a public agency must be the lead agency and be carrying out its own project; the project must be in an urbanized area, as defined; the project is located on or within an existing public right-of-way; the project must not add physical infrastructure increasing new automobile capacity (with minor exceptions) or adding auxiliary lanes; and the project must not require demolition of affordable housing units.

Comments

Those in support of SB 288 asserted that the bill would save critical time and money by creating statutory exemptions from CEQA for projects that make streets safer for walking and bicycling, speed up transit service in the public right of way, modernize and build new transit stations, repair eligible bridges and install zero emission infrastructure. SB288 does this by removing the ability of a few individuals to file requests for review under CEQA—something that is often done to slow development projects of all kinds, often making them cost more than they should to complete.

Supporters noted that many transit and transportation projects will benefit from an expedited planning and development process that is exempt from CEQA, focusing on engaging stakeholders in project planning in a more meaningful and interactive way than ever before. In addition, agency budgets set aside for CEQA review and potential lawsuits would be freed up for other uses within the community.

In support of the bill, the League of Women Voters said, “[t]ransportation is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in California at over 40% of emissions. The pandemic and its social distancing requirements has dealt a devastating blow to public transportation, and it is critical that we move quickly to improve bus and light rail service, while making it safer to walk and cycle to avoid dramatic increases in congestion and emissions. SB 288 creates more certainty for these critical and time-sensitive projects, reducing costs and delay at a time when California needs them most. It would also create jobs, while still providing for a robust public commenting process above what is currently required by CEQA. This expansion of CEQA exemptions is effective in achieving these goals while not undercutting CEQA and the commitment to environmental safety and justice.”

SB 288 had little in the way of organized opposition. Opponents of the bill argued that it would allow a large list of transportation projects that will likely bring significant environmental impacts to be exempt from CEQA, thereby circumventing the law’s important public participation and environmental health requirements. Although the bill purportedly promotes sustainable transportation projects, it would in fact exempt large-scale projects from undergoing a critical environmental review and accountability processes that will likely bring long-term, significant air quality and other environmental and environmental health impacts.

SB 288 received very few No votes in the final Assembly (3 Noes) and Senate (5 Noes) Floor votes and was signed by the Governor on September 28, 2020.

Eric Gelber, now retired, is a 1980 graduate of UC Davis School of Law (King Hall). He has nearly four decades of experience monitoring, analyzing, and crafting legislation through positions as a disability rights attorney, Chief Consultant with the Assembly Human Services Committee, and Legislative Director of the California Department of Developmental Services.


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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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