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Permanent exemption for environmental review sought for California transit projects

A current state law to speed up transportation projects on existing roadways and transit right-of-ways in the state by exempting some projects from environmental review could be made permanent under a proposal by state Sen. Scott Wiener.

Senate Bill 288, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020 and went into effect the following year, allowed transit projects such as transit-only lanes to be exempt from review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

S.B. 288, though, has an expiration of Jan. 1, 2023. Wiener, who authored S.B. 288, introduced Senate Bill 922 at a press conference Monday, which seeks to keep the CEQA exemptions permanent.

Projects for pedestrian and bike safety have also been exempted under the current law and would be continued to be exempted under the proposed law.

Wiener said that if a city is placing “sustainable, climate friendly, transportation projects,” like bus rapid transit, bus only lane or a bike lane, the projects should not have to go through an environmental review, saying that it is “counterproductive” for these types of projects to go through a lengthy review:

These projects get caught up in CEQA. They take a long time to approve. Then they get up in appeals and lawsuits, not for environmental reasons, but because people just don’t like them. They don’t like the results.”

Wiener added that far too many pedestrians and bicyclists continue to be killed in traffic crashes and that safety projects to need to installed sooner:

We need to make our streets safer yesterday. Not in a year, not in five years, not after seven years of appeals and lawsuits. Now.”

Jeffrey Tumlin, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s director of transportation, said despite Covid-19 taking a hard hit on transit agencies, Wiener’s SB 288 was one of the few bright spots:

Without SB 288, we would still be in a pointless bureaucratic process.”

One example that Tumlin gave was the transit agency’s ability to quickly stripe transit-only lanes that will benefit the 19-Polk and 27-Bryant.

The proposed bill also allows project exemptions for projects that expand carpooling and support parking policies that reduce congestion, Wiener said.

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