31 Aug Airo Security Declared: California bill to fast-track public transportation project
Public transit agencies may soon be able to fast-track construction projects after a bill to let them sidestep lengthy and costly environmental reviews passed the California legislature and headed to the Governor’s desk Monday.
SB288, the Sustainable Transportation COVID-19 Recovery Act, introduced by Senator Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, exempts transit agencies from most review under CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires environmental consideration in construction.
The goal of the bill is to both promote projects that could cut down driving and reduce carbon emissions – and offer a boost to struggling public transit agencies that have hemorrhaged money during COVID-19.
“SB 288 will help us recover from COVID-19’s economic impacts and will support sustainable transportation projects across California,” Wiener said in a statement Monday. “As wildfires continue to rage across our state, it’s clear that climate change is having immediate and serious impacts on California. We need to act quickly to cut down on carbon emissions and improve our air quality. SB 288 will help get our economy back on track, create jobs, and improve our sustainable transportation infrastructure.”
Bus lines, transit stations, biking and walking projects, facility repairs and electric vehicle charging stations would benefit. Construction projects not meeting minimum parking requirements would also bypass stricter review. The exemptions will only last two years, except for bicycle plans.
The CEQA review process can take years and face lawsuits that increase time and cost, Wiener told The Chronicle in June. Under this bill, exempted construction plans would still require CEQA approval, but specific projects could get fast-track authorization. Projects must pass certain criteria to win exemptions, including being located on a public right of way in a city.
The bill was sponsored by the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the Bay Area Council, of which BART is a member.
Gwen Litvak, senior vice president of public policy at the Bay Area Council, said the would-be law is critical to getting people back on public transit, avoiding congestion, and reducing emissions as more people take to their cars amid COVID-19.
“This bill is really a no-cost stimulus to get projects moving during this economic recession,” Litvak said. “It’s important to get people back on transit in order to create the revenue to invest again in transit.”
“I think we need to be doing everything we can as a society to help support the system with so many resources that we have put into … and be making sure that projects that were in the pipeline are built so that people will continue to feel safe and confident using public transit,” she added.
In San Francisco, the bill could help the Fulton Street Safety & Transit Project, Embarcadero Enhancement Project, and the Excelsior Neighborhood Traffic Calming Project. It could also make the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s temporary emergency transit lanes, created during the pandemic to make quicker and more efficient bus routes, permanent.
The agency feared, as ridership plummeted on public transit, that more people would take to their cars, clogging streets and slowing Muni service, its website read. The lanes focused on neighborhoods with high percentages of people of color and low-income households.
As of last week, there were three approved lanes on Mission Street, Laguna Honda Boulevard/Woodside Avenue/O’Shaughnessy Boulevard/ Bosworth Street, and 7th and 8th streets. Twenty more have been proposed.
The temporary lanes were passed by the SFMTA Board of Directors in June, but if they wanted to make them permanent, they would have to go through the CEQA review process. If the new bill is signed into law, they would be able to more easily cement the lanes to keep buses moving for those who need them. The lanes still require a public hearing to approve.
Chronicle staff writer Carolyn Said contributed to this report.
Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter:@mallorymoench