Darrell Steinberg to Unveil CEQA Reform Bill

Posted on 22 February 2013

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By Robert Cruickshank

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Thursday that he intends to propose a bill today that would reform the California Environmental Quality Act.

The proposal is co-authored by Senator Michael Rubio, but it has also been shaped by the blue-green alliance of unions and environmentalists who have joined forces to oppose bad reform:

"There will be an outline of a bill with detail intent," Steinberg said in an interview with The Chronicle editorial board Thursday. Or, as his press secretary Rhys Williams explained, what comes out Friday "will signal the intent of where the law wants to go."

The opposition from organized labor, including the 2.1 million-member California Labor Federation, has prompted Steinberg to hit the pause button, he acknowledged.

However, Steinberg is already making one huge concession to the opposition. "The standards-based approach won't fly with the Legislature," he said, referring to a key provision previously favored by Rubio that would allow a standard set by other federal, state or local ordinances to override CEQA when they come into conflict.

Steinberg says he is all for other proposed reforms, like streamlining the CEQA process; making it easier for infill projects that adequately address noise, traffic and other environmental issues to get a quicker pass; and prohibiting last-minute legal "document dumps" by project opponents that can stretch court proceedings into eternity.

Environmental groups had objected loudly to the so-called "standards-based approach" based on a concern that it would create a major loophole, especially if state or federal standards were ever weakened.

Steinberg's other reforms that he described are potentially useful, but there is one significant problem - his mention of addressing "traffic" issues. One of the things that has generated the most demand for CEQA reform is the so-called "LOS problem." LOS stands for "level of service" and it consists of letter grades for how much traffic congestion there is on a given road. LOS F is considered the worst, LOS A the best. If a project could create more traffic and degrade LOS - even if it is environmentally friendly and would reduce carbon emissions - then under CEQA, there are grounds to block the project.

The LOS problem is what allowed one person to sue under CEQA and hold up the implementation of the San Francisco Bicycle Master Plan for four years. As a result, sustainable transportation advocates have been hopping mad about the LOS rule in CEQA for many years now. The SF Bike Coalition has declared war on the LOS provision, and in 2006, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to declare "auto LOS to be an inappropriate measure of a given project's environmental impact, and requesting that the Planning Commission act to replace LOS with a more meaningful measure, such as vehicle trip generation."

At the Atlantic Cities in December 2011, Eric Jaffe declared the LOS provision to be The Transportation Planning Rule Every City Should Reform. In 2009, a three-part Streetsblog series Jeffrey Tumlin of transportation consultants Nelson\Nygaard called the LOS rules "the single greatest promoter of sprawl" in California.

I've always understood, and often agreed with, the environmentalists' concerns and objections to some aspects of the early elements of a possible CEQA reform proposal. I would hope that they in turn share the concern that transportation and sustainability advocates have had for many years with the flawed LOS provision and urge that it be fixed in any CEQA reform bill. That would be a great way to use this reform proposal as an opportunity to do some good and not just try to mitigate something that might not be good.

Friday is the deadline for submitting new bills, and Steinberg is acting to ensure that there is a bill for CEQA reform in place before that deadline hits. We may not see a fully articulated bill and many key details may still be under development, to be proposed as an amendment to the bill at a later time. Overall, this seems like a potentially workable start for meaningful CEQA reform, but I know I speak for many transit advocates when I say I would really like there to be an LOS fix in this bill.

Robert Cruickshank writes on California politics at Calitics and California High Speed Rail Blog. This article was originally published at California High Speed Rail Blog.