Sunday, April 23, 2006

Ross Mirkarimi and "alternative modalities"

Below is a transcription of Supervisor Mirkarimi's opening remarks at the Board of Supervisors' Land Use Committee meeting on April 12, 2006. To the uninitated---and the SFGTV viewers at home---it must have been difficult to figure out what the hell he was talking about. The Murk's speech at times evokes the memory of the late Irwin Corey or Robert Benchley's Treasurer's Report: "In setting aside the kind of percentages and making sure that we are entertaining and deliberating on land use and planning for involving transit that we want to make sure that that's planning in percentages taking into account the modalities that we seem to always be thinking about as an afterthought."

As a public service, District 5 Diary provides this succinct translation of the Murk's rather opaque, disingenuous monologue: "CEQA's Level of Service traffic standards are making it hard for my bike nut constituents to take away traffic lanes and street parking to create bike lanes for the 1% of the city's population who ride bikes (which, for some reason, I like to call an 'alternative modality'). As a representative of this Politically Correct, politically aggressive interest group---the Bicycle Coalition gave me their sole endorsement in 2004---I'm going to change the rules to make it even more difficult to drive a car, bus, or an emergency vehicle in San Francisco."

I particularly enjoyed Mirkarimi's remarks on the California Environmental Qality Act (CEQA): "CEQA requires an agency to conduct a cursory[sic] environmental review to see if a project has any environmental impacts." The Murk gets the word "cursory" mixed up with "preliminary," which is what the law really requires. But it's also a Freudian slip, because a "cursory" review is all he wants for bicycle projects in the city. The Murk also opines that "CEQA is generally advisory," which is simply wrong. CEQA is a state law that local jurisdictions must follow.

Mirkarimi goes on: "If the standard indicates that there is no impact, then the ERO [Enviromental Review Officer] issues a negative declaration. If the ERO determines that there are impacts which can be mitigated, then a mitigated negative declaration is issued." Yes, this is the way it should be done, but the Murk doesn't mention the city's preferred modus operandi on bike projects: declare them all "categorically exempt" from any environmental review, because, well, Bikes Are Good and Don't Burn Fossil Fuels, so why should they have to do any review?

What the city did when the Board of Supervisors waved the Bicycle Plan into the General Plan last year was even worse: They gave it a General Rule Exemption, even though the Plan includes extensive detail about exactly how the city is going to physically change the streets of the city. The only projects that are supposed to get a General Rule Exemption under CEQA are those that can't possibly have any effect on the environment. The Board of Supervisors, Planning, DPT, and the City Attorney are collaborating on an end-run around CEQA on behalf of the SF Bicycle Coalition and 1% of the city's population.

Progressives like CEQA when they can use it to stop projects they oppose, like Timber Harvest Plans or housing developments. But now they want to change the rules so they can whisk their favorite projects through that process with no review. This is both bad public policy and grossly hypocritical.

The Level of Service (LOS) standards under CEQA require an EIR for any project that results in delaying traffic---cars, buses, emergency vehicles, etc.---as it moves through intersections. The Murk and the bike nuts---along with their facilitators in city government---want to change that CEQA rule so that they can make traffic worse in the city for everyone else on behalf of cyclists. Even assuming the city can get away with rewriting a state law, the problem is that deliberately making traffic worse for cars also makes Muni service and emergency vehicle service worse. But these fanatics won't let that stop them from making life miserable for Muni passengers, emergency vehicles, and the owners of the 452,813---the DMV's latest total---motor vehicles registered in San Francisco.

Thank you Mr. Chair, Colleagues. As we know, the City and County of San Francisco has obligated[sic] a Transit First policy, and as that Transit First policy has endeavored to be realized we have noticed over the years that complications and at times confusion have arised[sic] maybe due to the law of unintended consequences. But that particular law that sometimes provokes these unintended consequences is how our Transit First policy coexists with CEQA. The Environmental Quality Act. And I want to make sure that this body---the Board of Supervisors---begins to push the envelope just a little bit and that we begin to figure out how we may be able to integrate more smartly the Transit First policies that we certainly would like to pursue. Alternative modalities and our relationship of course to private automobiles, et cetera. 

This resolution asks the Planning Commission to study this matter. And it’s important to me that we approach this from the most measured and I think the most methodical place as possible. But I believe that the city is long overdue in approaching this place. One reason is because I feel, and I have said this for other related acts, appeal-wise, it has come before the Board of Supervisors, that I think it’s time that we try to decouple our environmental review process from poorly substantiated or deficient standards that we sometimes live by or is interpreted by through our Planning Department. It’s not any fault of theirs. I think again that this is a distillation of how CEQA in its amorphous stage requires municipalities to try to interpret and make sense of what I think are very broad guidelines.

It’s important that San Francisco be on the same page as to what CEQA does and doesn’t do. Just to give some background for the public in terms of what CEQA is so that we’re not talking really around the issue. CEQA requires an agency to conduct a cursory environmental review to see if a project has any environmental impacts. The Environmental Review Officer, known as the ERO, consults standards against which he or she evaluates the project’s projected impacts. If the standard indicates that there is no impact, then the ERO issues a negative declaration. If the ERO determines that there are impacts, which can be mitigated, then a mitigated negative declaration is issued. The project can proceed, but only if mitigations proposed are implemented. 

If a sponsor of a project that has been issued a mitigated negative declaration rejects the mitigations, or if the ERO determines that the impacts are substantial, then a full-blown environmental impact report---EIR---is required. EIRs can take more than a year to produce as we all know and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars potentially. An EIR enumerates both impacts and potential mitigations but does not legally require that any of that be implemented by policymaking body as we have deliberated time after time. That is, a project can be approved as proposed without any mitigations, thereby making CEQA a mechanism to disclose potential impacts, more so than a mandate to mitigation.

The irony is that this particular law---CEQA---has been around really since Governor Ronald Reagan was in office. Those particular standards do not necessarily mesh with the contemporary science as to how municipalities are wrestling with the need to integrate automobiles, mass transit, and alternative modalities such as putting pedestrians and bicyclists and the safety of bicyclists within the equation of making sure there’s room for all. Because the standards used assume the road’s populated by V-8 muscle-car engines back during the Reagan era, burning leaded fuel without emissions control, the thinking that if too many cars were stopped for too long, a hot spot would develop of ozone not nitrous oxides.

We all know that traffic is a reality in San Francisco but there has not been a hot spot measured anywhere in our city for more than decades. In technical parlance, the ERO must require an EIR be prepared that the Level of Service known as the LOS drops to E or F. With A being free flow of traffic and F being slowed traffic. This EIR as I said can cost a hundred thousand dollars and take a year to prepare. So CEQA, on its head, this is why I prefaced my remarks as being the unintended consequences, has now moved to become an impediment for forward-thinking Transit First cities like San Francisco. A law that was intended to keep the air clean by keeping autos moving is now used to slow down environmental-friendly projects using standards based on technology that no longer poses the same environmental threat. 

In that sense it’s my contention that we may have outlived a dated law. A precisely converse argument could be made that faster moving vehicles cause more environmental threats of course to pedestrians and to areas that of course are bicyclists [inaudible] where the pedestrians travel. There are well-thought out metrics upon which to base other standards in the works. This resolution, my resolution, is not meant to trump the work being done at the Transportation Authority on more scientifically realistic models. As a matter of fact, we borrow from the study that was initiated by Commissioner McGoldrick on December 16, 2003 regarding the Strategic Analysis Report on Transportation System Levels of Service and Methodologies. It’s a fine study, and the conclusions from that particular study that implemented its probe are exactly what we are also extending through this resolution. So far it is important to us that we grow comfortable with a more equitable standard in setting aside the kind of percentages and making sure that we are entertaining and deliberating on land use and planning for involving transit that we want to make sure that that’s planning in percentages taking into account the modalities that we seem to always be thinking about as an afterthought.

Since CEQA is generally advisory, it’s highly unlikely that any action that this body or even the Planning Commission take on this resolution would have any material impact on whether or not a bike lane is created, for example. Those are ongoing political questions. And this will not be decided frankly by this study or even in this room. What I would like to do is first thank everybody who has worked with my office and who have been leaders in their own right in developing I think questions with regard to how San Francisco can further its relationship with CEQA and reform it. I just want to thank of course the City, the various agencies within the City, but also want to recognize SPUR, and the Air Quality Management District as well. Bay Trail planner, Transportation for a Livable City, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the Green Party, and others. But before I bring on some folks from those organizations, I also want to recognize this and have a bit of a dialogue with some representatives from the City. And first I’d like to call up the Planning Department...

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