Recent CEQA streamlining means stronger environmental protections

Reforms of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) recently enacted will make it easier to build bike infrastructure and design our roads for people instead of cars. While touted as a “streamlining” of the law, it actually refocuses CEQA back to its original purpose: to protect California’s environment.

Level of Service

Before: CEQA requires cities to measure how a development will alter roadways’ Level of Service, an official measure of how many vehicles can be accommodated.

Why this was a problem: Level of Service doesn’t care how many people a vehicle carries, nor does it measure pedestrian or bicycle traffic also using the road. A car carrying 1 person is equal to a bus carrying 45 in the measure’s eyes. A wider sidewalk or the presence of a bike lane, which take road space away from cars, reduces Level of Service and so gets dinged in CEQA even if it might move more people along the road. In other words, by using this measure CEQA prioritizes driving over walking, biking, and transit, to the detriment of the environment.

Now: If a city wants, it can designate an area as a “transit priority area,” provided it meets certain criteria of transit service, thanks to SB 743. Instead of Level of Service, the city can use alternative measurements of road efficiency when evaluating a project. Or, it can ignore the reform entirely. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Switchboard blog has more details.

Bike lanes

Before: Like all projects, bike lanes and bike projects were required to undergo CEQA analysis.

Why this was a problem: It subjects bike projects to a costly analysis to prove biking doesn’t harm the environment. In San Francisco, plaintiffs sued the city to stop its bicycle master plan under CEQA, a counterintuitive proposal. And, with Level of Service measurements putting cars above bikes in CEQA, it forced the city to rework its bike plan to allow maximum vehicle throughput, rather than maximum usefulness for bicyclists. In the end, San Francisco’s plan was stalled for years.

Now: Under AB 417, on-road bicycle lanes that are within “urbanized areas,” though what qualifies isn’t explained in the law [see update below], as well as retiming traffic signals and adding signage, are exempt from CEQA and environmental impact reports under state law. Off-street paths aren’t included. Marin or a town could require an environmental impact report, but the state will no longer ask for it. Cyclelicious has more details on the law and what it means.

A stronger environmental law

The purpose of environmental law is to protect our environment, not to conserve the status quo. Driving is, at best, not very environmentally friendly. By removing the provisions that promote driving from environmental protection law, the reforms allow cities and counties to choose for themselves how to approach their transportation-related environmental problems. One hopes Marin’s environmentalists will jump at the opportunity.

UPDATE: Reader Eric Fischer clarified that California goes off the federal Census definition, which is any census block with 1,000 or more people per square mile as well as adjacent blocks of at least 500 people per square mile. Essentially all of developed East Marin qualifies.

Mid-Week Links: Happy Hours

Wonderful news!  The Greater Marin (i.e., me) will be throwing a Happy Hour at the Marin Brewing Company on Tuesday, Dec. 27th, at 7pm!  Come by, talk transit, and enjoy Marin’s home brews.  Until then, though, a lot has happened in the County, so on to the links:

Marin County

  • Negotiations between Marin Transit (MT) and GGT will continue for another two years.  MT believes GGT is overcharging by $2.5 million per year to operate its local Marin routes. (IJ)
  • RepealSMART has gathered 7,500 signatures for its repeal effort, although how many signatures are required is still up in the air: RepealSMART says it needs only 15,000 but under some formulae it would need double that number.  The deadline for signatures is January 27. (Press Democrat)
  • A new bikeway opened in Novato between the north and south halves of the city, allowing bikers to avoid the 101 shoulder. (IJ)
  • Performance parking isn’t performing well in San Francisco, forcing broader spreads between cheap and expensive blocks. SFPark disputes the idea that it won’t work, citing the fact that the zones are still just pilot projects, and new ones at that.  Sausalito is running a similar program in its downtown. (Greater Greater Washington, Streetsblog)
  • SMART could lead to traffic and safety problems at San Rafael’s Bettini Transit Center, according to the Golden Gate Bridge District.  Officials cited concerns regarding transferring passengers crossing Third Street and bus delays caused by passing trains. (IJ)
  • SMART sold $191 million in construction bonds this past week, netting $171 million for the project.  The money will be kept in escrow until the RepealSMART effort is resolved. (Press Democrat, IJ, Patch)
  • Bus service will be restored between Sir Francis Drake High and West Marin next semester.  Coastal residents sought the route after Marin Transit officials eliminated the extremely underused Route 62. (IJ)
  • County planners panned development plans at the Golden Gate Seminary in Strawberry, saying the proposed 117 new residential units were “so out of sync” with the seminary’s 1984 Master Plan they “cannot imagine approving” the development. (IJ)
  • Canal residents demanded better lighting, sidewalks, and crosswalks in the neighborhood at a march last Wednesday.  San Rafael city planners said they had received no specific complaint. (IJ)
  • Caltrans will fix a sinking Highway 101 overpass in Corte Madera with $1.2 million in state funds.  The money was accompanied by $28 million for  SMART construction. (IJ)
  • “She was a very special lady who touched many lives… She will be greatly missed.”  Jomar Lococo died on Highway 101 as her husband tried to avoid another driver that had drifted into their lane. (Patch)

The Greater Marin

  • On-time performance is extremely difficult for bus systems to achieve.  Whatever my gripes about GGT, at least they have this down. (Transit Manager)
  • The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) only works when the right questions are asked, as Mountain View discovered in their draft Environmental Impact Report.  As it turns out, building houses near jobs actually is good for the environment. (Atlantic Cities)