Together with the Bay Area Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, SPUR is cosponsoring Senate Bill 288, introduced by Senator Scott Wiener in June. The bill would accelerate common-sense, sustainable transportation projects that make streets safer for walking and biking, speed up bus service, expand carpooling, and modernize and build new bus and light rail lines and stations. Accelerating these projects now can jumpstart a green recovery, creating jobs and reviving local economies while improving public health and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
How does the bill propose to do this? By taking a hard look at the regulatory processes that slow down, stop or increase the cost of sustainable transportation projects. Ironically, the culprit here is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This law requires state and local agencies to evaluate the significant environmental impacts of projects they approve and to avoid or mitigate those impacts if feasible. The evaluation is the basis for many state and local approvals needed to deliver a project. Each step of the process is subject to appeals and lawsuits that can increase project costs and create delays. It’s not unusual for it to take three to four years and millions of dollars to resolve a single lawsuit; appeals regularly take six months to resolve. SB 288 fast-tracks the state’s most sustainable, time-sensitive and vital projects by providing targeted exemptions from CEQA, significantly reducing the chances that projects will be appealed or litigated.
Currently, CEQA allows anyone to sue a project, even on non-environmental grounds. For example, one individual has used CEQA to sue the City of San Francisco’s bicycle plan, holding up 34 miles of bike lanes over the course of four years. During that time, nine people died and over 2,000 people were injured while riding their bikes in the city.(Based on a TransBASE query for bicycle collisions within the city of San Francisco from 1/1/2006 to 12/31/2010.) Today San Francisco's Slow and Safe Street's program — a cornerstone in the city’s COVID-19 recovery plan to enable people to travel in a safe, socially distant way — is being appealed. Why? Not because of any impacts on air quality, water or species but because the changes will remove parking spaces and slow down car traffic.
We wish we could say that this is unusual. But stories like these repeat themselves all over California.
SB 288 creates targeted statutory exemptions to CEQA for projects that make streets safer for walking and biking, speed up bus service on streets, make it possible to run bus services on highways, expand carpooling, and modernize and build new bus and light rail lines and stations.
As cities reopen, Californians are seeing a major uptick in driving and congestion. If we don’t prevent a surge in driving, pollution will continue to harm the state’s Black and Latino populations, who already shoulder a disproportionate burden of the state’s air pollution from vehicles due to decades of discriminatory land use, transportation, housing and financing policies. As a result, these populations have higher rates of underlying health conditions such as asthma that make COVID-19 especially dangerous.
California needs better transportation options to ensure an equitable recovery. In areas where traffic congestion is increasing rapidly, buses are already passing people up due to social distancing requirements or getting stuck in traffic. This will disproportionately impact essential workers, on whom our economy depends. In California 33% of essential workers are transit riders and rely on transit to get to their jobs.
We will also need to stretch limited public dollars further. It costs more money to run transit service when it’s stuck in traffic — money that transit agencies will not have for the foreseeable future. And more driving means more wear and tear on streets and roads. Safe, affordable and clean transportation options are more critical to Californians than ever. During the COVID-19 crisis, more people are walking and biking to get where they need to go while maintaining social distancing. With fewer cars on the road under shelter-in-place orders, people felt safer biking and walking. As cities reopen, they will have to rapidly expand biking and walking infrastructure so people can continue to feel safe and comfortable biking and walking.
SB 288 ensures that only projects that truly benefit their communities and the environment can receive new statutory exemptions. To qualify for exemption, projects must:
- Be located in an existing public right of way
- Not add new auto capacity
- Not demolish affordable housing
- Use a skilled and trained workforce or have a project labor agreement in place for construction
SPUR believes that policies for streamlining and exempting transportation projects must be designed to overcome a legacy of disempowering the public and must ensure community-led decision-making. For larger projects, SB 288:
- Expands public participation requirements so that they occur early in a project and when projects are most meaningful
- Requires a business case, an international best practice that enables communities to shape project goals and alternatives early in a planning process
- Requires a racial equity analysis and suggest mitigations to address any disproportionate burdens
Creating more certainty is a no-cost stimulus for common-sense, sustainable transportation projects with lasting benefits for the state. Over more than 40% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. Expanding high-quality, safe, and affordable, high-quality transportation options in critical to achieving the state’s ambitious climate goals. Now is the time to accelerate sustainable projects that can create jobs, revive local economies, improve mobility, connect communities, improve public health, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.