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California Legislature Approves Speedy Sustainability Bill

The legislation would expedite the state’s sustainable transit projects by cutting down on driving and reducing carbon emissions while providing a boost to struggling transit authorities. It is headed to Gov. Newsom’s desk.

(TNS) — Public transit agencies may soon be able to fast-track construction projects after a bill to let them bypass some 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 state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, exempts “sustainable” transit projects from stricter 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 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 in those plans 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.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed sent a letter in support of the bill to Wiener in July.

“If these time-sensitive projects are granted a CEQA statutory exemption, it will help the City avoid costly litigation and potentially years of delay at exactly the time when we need it the most,” Breed’s letter read. “Stalling these projects is not an option if we want a successful transportation recovery. If people turn to driving rather than returning to Muni, walking, or biking, we could see a drastic increase in congestion on City streets.”

Jason Baker, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s vice president of transportation, housing and community development, said the bill was important to the businesses he represents because of three things: “more jobs on the street sooner rather than later, reducing traffic and reducing pollution.”

The would-be law is also critical to getting people back on public transit, said Gwen Litvak, senior vice president of public policy at the Bay Area Council.

“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.”

The goal is to make “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 permanent the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s temporary emergency transit lanes, which were created during the pandemic to make quicker and more efficient bus routes.

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 four approved lanes on Mission Street, Laguna Honda Boulevard/Woodside Avenue/O’Shaughnessy Boulevard/Bosworth Street, Masonic Avenue/Presidio Avenue, and Seventh and Eighth streets. Nearly two dozen more have been proposed.

The temporary lanes were authorized 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.

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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