By Robert Cruickshank/California High Speed Rail Blog
One of the dramas at the end of the legislative session last week involved the fate of reform to the California Environmental Quality Act. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg substituted a new bill, SB 743, for his original CEQA reform bill, SB 731. SB 743 is designed to speed approval and construction of a new arena for the Sacramento Kings basketball team, but it does open the door to a badly-needed reform of one of the worst aspects of CEQA – the rules requiring projects to be evaluated for their impact on the “level of service” (LOS) of roads. This rule has been called “the single greatest promoter of sprawl” in California and has long been a target of sustainability advocates.
As Damien Newton explains, SB 743 begins the process of removing LOS from CEQA, but doesn’t go as far as many advocates had hoped:
While SB 731 would have brought the statewide elimination of LOS — a car-centric transportation planning metric that basically puts the movement of cars over everything else — as part of environmental review, SB 743 would still nix the metric for projects within designated transit priority areas (TPAs). Large swaths of most urban areas are considered TPAs, which are defined as areas within a 1/2-mile of high quality transit: a rail stop or a bus corridor that provides or will provide at least 15-minute frequency service during peak hours by the year 2035.
According to the Sacramento Bee, Steinberg said he would add into SB 743 “a provision at the governor’s request that gives the governor’s Office of Planning and Research the go-ahead to develop a new way of measuring traffic impacts of major projects, based on total ‘vehicle miles traveled’ rather than intersection congestion.”
It’s a good start, but more will be needed. Of course, that has been said of SB 743 as a whole by a lot of people. Transit and sustainability advocates wanted to see LOS completely removed. Environmental groups wanted LOS to be replaced by language requiring assessment and mitigation not of traffic but of displacement of people, homes, and businesses. Business groups still want a much bigger reform to CEQA that would speed – or gut, depending on your perspective – environmental review of most projects.
I choose to see this as a step in the right direction. Once it became clear that a broader fix to CEQA wasn’t going to happen in 2013, it made sense to try and get some improvement to the odious LOS rule in the smaller CEQA bill that did pass. Doing so makes it easier to include a more thorough elimination of the LOS rule in a broader CEQA reform package, and it remains a strong possibility, if not an outright certainty, that some sort of bigger CEQA reform is still coming in 2014.
Transit is a winner with the smaller CEQA bill, since transit oriented development is going to get a big boost with SB 743. That can and should pay immediate dividends, even as the conversation continues about the right way to make bigger fixes to the state’s environmental review laws.