Monday, August 15, 2005

Planning to Traffic: ignore the law and save money

Below in italics is a memo from Paul Maltzer, the head of the Environmental Review department of the Planning Department, to the Department of Parking and Traffic. It turns out that the city didn't bother to do any environmental study of the 500-page Bicycle Plan. Instead, they tried to sneak it through the system without doing the Initial Study---in this instance, not even a Negative Declaration---which, as Maltzer tells Yee, would cost up to $20,000 just for Planning's part of the effort.

The city argued unconvincingly that the Bicycle Plan was entitled to a General Rule exemption under CEQA, that is, that it couldn't possibly have any negative impacts of any kind on anyone or anything in the city. Since bicycles are sacrosanct in the city's reigning progressive orthodoxy, both the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors went along with Planning and DPT's attempted scam, both bodies apparently of the opinion that bicycles and bicycle advocates are above state law. 

Since the Bicycle Plan has now been challenged in court, we'll find out if the courts think the city can pass the Plan---which involves taking away auto lanes, eliminating parking, lane sharing, traffic calming, etc.---and make it part of the city's General Plan without any environmental study.
Maltzer suggests the strategy the city eventually followed to skirt the law: 

We have also discussed with some of your staff that if the proposed Bicycle Plan is very conceptual only, with no specific projects proposed for implementation at this time, then it may be the case that detailed technical background analysis would not be required to analyze the project's potential impacts.

As it turns out, there is in fact another crucial part of the Bicycle Plan---the Network Document, which is more than 200 pages long---that contains proposals for changes to specific city streets. The Network Document has not been passed by the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors, but it raises the legal issue of whether the city can piecemeal in a major project like the Bicycle Plan this way. My understanding of the law is that it can't.

In short, instead of doing the right thing---and the legal thing---in the beginning, the city will probably eventually be ordered by the court to do an EIR for the massive Bicycle Plan, along with the additional cost of trying to defend their indefensible conduct in court. 

This is bad public policy from every possible perspective, and the shocking thing is that it was done with no dissent from the city's progressive leadership, including Supervisor Mirkarimi, who voted to make the Bicycle Plan part of the General Plan with no environmental study.

See this and this for public comment on the Plan.

March 23, 2004
Mr. Bond Yee
Deputy Director and City Traffic Engineer
Department of Parking & Traffic

25 Van Ness Avenue, Suite 345
San Francisco, CA 94102

Re: Environmental Review of San Francisco Bicycle Plan

Dear Mr. Yee:

I am responding to your letter from last month wherein you requested information from our office to help you plan your schedule and budget for the above-referenced project. Please understand that the information I am providing to you is my best guess at this point in time, based upon only a partial knowledge of what may finally be included in a proposed Bicycle Plan, and what issues may emerge as areas of potential environmental impact or public concern.

If we were to analyze the proposed Bicycle Plan and conclude that a Negative Declaration was the appropriate CEQA document, that conclusion would need to be based upon evidence which indicated that the project had no potential for significant adverse environmental impact. 

The main area of analysis would undoubtedly be transportation and traffic impacts, where we would need sufficient analysis to support a conclusion that the proposed plan would not result in significant adverse impacts upon traffic, transit, pedestrian or other transportation modes. 

That would require a run of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority's model, if the proposed Plan includes specific changes in the existing transportation network. If the proposed Plan was found to have some potential adverse traffic impacts, then air quality analysis would likely be required, as well. Urban design and visual quality analysis could also be necessary, depending upon what specific proposals are included within the Plan. 

We have also discussed with some of your staff that if the proposed Bicycle Plan is very conceptual only, with no specific projects proposed for implementation at this time, then it may be the case that detailed technical background analysis would not be required to analyze the project's potential impacts.

At present, MEA[Major Environmental Analysis] is experiencing a backlog of approximately ten weeks before a project that we have received can be assigned to a planner to begin our environmental review process. Once a project has been assigned for review, if it is determined that a Negative Declaration is appropriate, those documents typically take about four to six months to complete, depending in part upon the completion of any necessary background documents (e.g., traffic background study, visual quality, etc.)

The project sponsor, in this case DPT, would be required to pay for any background studies, as well as the cost of our staff time and materials for the preparation of the document. You would need to speak with someone at the Transportation Authority to find out what it would cost to run their model, should that be necessary. You also may want to check with some private environmental consulting firms to inquire about the cost of preparing air quality and visual background reports.

In terms of MEA staff time, I think that you should assume at least 100-200 hours (again based upon an assumed Negative Declaration) depending upon the complexity and controversy. At roughly $100 per hour averaged out over the various MEA staff involved, that would amount to approximately $10,000-$20,000 in fees to Planning. 

That is a rough estimate of the Planning Department cost only, and does not include any of the background studies that may be required if the CEQA document is appealed and we are required to defend the document before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors in two separate hearings. The cost of such appeals, should they occur, would be at least another $10,000, I expect.

Please understand that his letter should not be construed as a promise of commitment as to what level of environmental review may ultimately be required. That determination can only be made after we have received the proposed Plan and completed an Initial Study of its potential for environmental impact.

I hope this information is helpful to you. Should you have any further questions about this, please do not hesitate to ask.

Paul Maltzer
Environmental Review Officer

cc P. Tannen, J. Robbins, B. Wycko

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