Saturday, March 19, 2011

Republicans and the Bicycle Coalition could "streamline" CEQA

The Bicycle Coalition has new allies---state Republicans---in its long-time quest to "reform" the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA):

"We wanted to streamline[the law] so there could not be as many levels of lawsuits," said Sen. Bill Emmerson (R-Hemet)...The proposal would sharply limit Californians' ability to go to court to challenge a construction project's environmental impact report---a document critical to final approval. The state attorney general would still be able to file such lawsuits. Citizens would keep limited rights to file litigation, but only by making a deposit to the court of $50,000, or 1% of a construction project's costs if that amount is smaller. Telecommunications companies seeking to expand their broadband networks would receive exemptions from environmental rules for related construction. Such a change would be a boon to firms like AT&T, which has contributed a total of $38,100 in campaign money to the five Republican senators since 2009 ("GOP lawmakers threaten to withhold votes unless environmental rules are rewritten," LA Times, March 16).

Recall that when the court issued the injunction against the city's Bicycle Plan, Leah Shahum accused us of "perverting" that law because bicycles don't cause any pollution---or something-or-other. "We're frustrated. We've got a case here where the environmental laws are being perverted in a way that is not helping the environment and not helping the city of San Francisco...Our local environmental review process is not very environmental. This court ruling highlights the problems in the system. If we are going to be a truly green city, we must update the way we make transportation decisions in San Francisco."

Shahum's understanding of CEQA has always been sketchy. The initial phase of the litigation was only about whether the city was required to do an environmental review of the Bicycle Plan project, not about the allegedly benign contents of the Plan itself. When he ordered the city to do an environmental review of the Bicycle Plan, it was an easy decision for Judge Busch to make.

But for years the Bicycle Coalition has urged "reforming" and "updating" CEQA, which is only about eliminating the level of service ("LOS") standard for traffic studies---how long it takes traffic to get through intersections. If a project will degrade LOS standards---that is, make traffic significantly worse in the project area---the project's sponsor either has to mitigate that impact or the project can't be implemented. If the city and the Bicycle Coalition didn't have to consider the LOS standard, they could take away traffic lanes on busy streets all over the city to make bike lanes regardless of the effect that would have on our traffic.

Supervisor Mirkarimi has of course supported that idea, as he has everything else the Bicycle Coalition wants to do to our streets. The problem he and the Coalition face, however, is that CEQA is a state law that trumps local law. If they want to dump LOS traffic studies, they have to go through the state legislature to get the law changed.

Maybe they can now make a deal with the Republicans: If the Repugs agree to exempt bicycle projects all over the state from CEQA review, the SFBC could agree to make environmental groups put up $50,000 before they can file suit against developers. That would make environmental and neighborhood groups mad, but it's bikes uber alles, right? Nothing's more important than bikes!

When he responded to this question in the Bicycle Coalition's questionnaire back in 2007, Mayor Newsom understood that changing CEQA on the local level wasn't so simple:

The CA Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was designed to help citizens and policy makers understand the environmental impact of development proposals by requiring environmental impact reports (EIRs) on such projects. Currently, the SF Planning Department chooses to apply that requirement to the conversion of traffic lanes to bus-only, bike-only lanes, and wider sidewalks, increasing the cost of such proposals and delaying their implementation, even though these projects are clearly beneficial to the environment. Would you support changes at the local level to exempt projects which prioritize sustainable transportation modes from environmental impact reports? Yes ___ No ___

Mayor Newsom's cautious answer displays a reality-based approach to CEQA while assuring the bike people that he supports their proposed "improvements" to city streets:

Since CEQA is a State law, I’m unsure how we could make changes to the CEQA review process at the local level. I also want to ensure our Planning Department is cautious with how it interprets CEQA, to help avoid situations like the required EIR for the Bike Network that has stalled bike improvements in San Francisco. That said, I stand ready to do what we can to ensure CEQA achieves its goal of identifying environmental impacts with minimal disruption to the city’s environmental improvements.

Now that Newsom is Lieutenant Governor and is in Sacramento, maybe he can broker a deal with the Republicans and Governor Brown so that San Francisco can make even more "improvements" to its streets to make it as difficult and expensive as possible to drive in the city.

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