Cheviot Hills Homeowners Preemptively Declare Victory Obstructing Expo Bike Path

Will a bike path go here? The Cheviot Hills Homeowners Association Is Already Saying It Won't

Will a bike path go here? Time, and a judge, will tell...

A recent article in the newsletter for the Cheviot Hills Homeowners Association provides an amazing example of how two people’s viewpoints, and rhetoric, can present two different stories. When I first read the article from CHHA, I actually didn’t recognize that it was coverage of the same story I wrote back in September of 2010.

Last fall, a group of Cheviot Hills Homeowners filed suit against the proposed Bike Path that would run adjacent to the Expo Line claiming that the documents supporting a Categorical Exclusion for the project were flawed. A Categorical Exclusion (CE) would have allowed construction to proceed, sans environmental impact report, on the assumption that there would be no appreciable environmental impacts. In response to the challenge, Caltrans pulled the CE and the L.A. Department of Transportation went back to the drawing board to work on an improved application that would head off any court challenges.

While the LADOT will not comment on an active lawsuit, they did respond to a request for comment concerning the CHHA article, the entirety of which can be read after the jump. In particular, Senior Bike Coordinator Michelle Mowery was concerned that the CHHA article claimed that the funding for the project was in jeopardy, Mowery asserts that the funding is not in any danger.

It should be affirmed that no funding has been lost. Although, due to a lawsuit brought by Cheviot Hills attorney Zachary Samuels, the Categorical Exemption issued for the entire Expo Bike Path alignment, not specifically for Cheviot Hills, was withdrawn by Caltrans (the issuing agency), and thus the City is moving forward with additional environmental documentation as required for all federally funded projects. The bicycle path project continues to be viable and the City is still working with the Expo Authority to make the project a reality for Los Angeles.

One of the chief arguments we’ve heard from groups battling transit expansion is that they’re really really supportive of the project, but only if it take a form that is not at all practical or viable (read: excessive grade separations). We see that again in the CHHA article. For the record, the reason the Bike Path route changed from what was initially proposed was because the Expo Light Rail line was not a viable project at the time. Once Expo began moving forward with the LRT project, the bike project had to be re-routed.

Expo Bike Path Loses Federal Funding Due To Faulty Environmental Documentation

Cheviot Hills has long been looking forward to a bike path and our community’s support was instrumental in getting the bike path funded in 2001. At that time the MTA Board ordered the Exposition Light Rail to follow a route down Venice Boulevard and Sepulveda, which would avoid impacts to the residential community and to increase ridership on Expo. Under those circumstances the bike path would have traveled mostly on an exclusive right-of-way from Culver City to Santa Monica, including passing over two historic rail bridges and through an existing rail tunnel. Now, Expo’s current plan is to run trains through residential communities and place the bike path on streets and into the backyards of numerous residents adjacent to the proposed light rail project.

For the newly proposed bike path, Caltrans was granted a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) categorical exemption (CE); this allowed Caltrans to move forward with the bike path project without issuing an environmental impact report. Believing that Caltrans was granted the CE in error, a group of homeowners filed a lawsuit in federal court against Caltrans, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and the MTA. The homeowners claimed that the project would, in fact, result in significant environmental impacts. Besides forced taking of up to 15 feet of personal property, issues of paving, fencing, installation of lighting, security were also addressed.

Cheviot Attorney Zachary Samuels, speaking for the homeowners stated, “We were shocked and disappointed that the CE was granted behind our backs…. We shouldn’t have to wait until the bulldozers show up to find out what is going on in our backyards.”

A spokesman for Neighbors For Smart Rail (NFSR), who researched the bike path environmental certification issue on behalf of the homeowners, said, “This is the same kind of improper environmental study that has plagued the Expo project as a whole. We are pleased that the homeowners were able to reclaim their rights in this case. We look forward to the entire Expo environmental study being set aside and replaced with a proper and thorough analysis. Shortcuts inevitably short change the public. In the case of the bike path those short cuts were hiding some pretty obvious impacts to a substantial number of people, including bike riders.”

In the end, the lawsuit was settled. Due to the defendants’ inability to produce any documentation supporting their claims of no environmental impacts, the CE was rescinded and the $2.5 million in federal funds to build the bike path was suspended. The plaintiffs must be notified if and when any subsequent environmental clearance on the Phase 2 bike path is undertaken and, going forward, a new and verifiable environmental review must be completed in order to regain the lost federal funding.

Colleen Mason Heller
CHHA Light Rail Chair