Bike Plan Projects Heading Off to Environmental Review

Is the Mayor's promise of 40 miles of bike projects a year killed by CEQA studies? Time will tell...

Yesterday the LADOT announced through the LADOT Bike Blog that a series of projects outlined in the Bike Plan would undergo a full environmental review before construction of these projects can begin construction.  Between conversations with City Planning and LADOT, we have a good idea of how the environmental review will go forward.  City staff is concerned about lawsuits brought against projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA.)  CEQA lawsuits had delayed the implementation of the San Francisco Bike Plan for four years and continues to stall the Expo Line Bike Path.

In order to expedite the review, the City is creating project packages of a group of projects that will be reviewed at the same time.  The first package will be announced soon, but the Bike Blog’s description of the first packet as “”Bike lanes in Priority 1 of the 5 Year Implementation Strategy and the projects around NBC Universal expansion that require environmental review” gives a pretty good idea of what’s going to be in the packet.

What won’t be included in these reviews are projects that don’t require the removal of a travel lane or parking such as all of the “year zero” projects, including the 7th Street Bike Lanes, the York Boulevard Bike Lanes, and the “Bicycle Friendly Streets.”  Also, bike projects included in other plans that have or will undergo review such as the Figueroa Corridor Study or the Downtown Street Standards won’t need a second review.  City staff felt that the projects included in the NBC Universal project weren’t studied sufficiently.

An full environmental impact report for each packet is expected to take 12-18 months and the study of the first packet won’t begin until the fall of this year.  This means that some of the more controversial projects, such as bike lanes on most streets that are part of the Backbone Bikeway Network, might not even be cleared through the environmental process for two years from today.   The good news is that the first step of the process, completing the Environmental Assessment (EA), will most likely clear some of the projects and could take a couple of months from when the studies begin.

Step one is completing the EA.  The EA is a first look at the project package to see which projects would create enough of an impact on existing traffic patterns to warrant further study.  Yes, this does mean that, under current environmental law, the bike projects will be tested to see if they disrupt the car traffic at all.  Or, as Alexis Lantz, the Planning and Program Director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, put it, “No matter how much better a project may improve the overall livablity and safety of our communities or the mobility of other modes, if it predicted to in anyway inconvenience vehicles it requires an EIR (Environmental Impact Review), which is not really the point or intention of CEQA.”

First, the package of bike projects will undergo an “Environmental Analysis” (EA) which will determine which projects will head to a full Environmental Impact Review (EIR) and which will not have enough of an impact to need further study and receive a coveted Categorical Exclusion.  The City is concerned that many projects in the plan could be challenged under the state’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) law unless they first undergo an environmental review.

City Planning’s Claire Bowen warns not to get your hopes too high that many projects will be exempted, “We always anticipated that many streets, particularly those on the Backbone Network, were going to require a more in-depth analysis because we could be taking away a (mixed use) lane.  That’s why many of the plans in the 1996 Bike Plan were never implemented.  LADOT didn’t have the money or the impetus to do the environmental review at that time.”

From there, the remaining projects will move into the full EIR stage.  This stage will require the city to create alternate proposals to each of the projects and have them go through an environmental and public review process.  For example, for a bike lane on Venice Boulevard, the city might offer alternatives of Sharrows on the Boulevard, an alternate bike lane on a parallel street such as Washington Boulevard, and a “no-build” option.  Each of these will be studied to show that the city considered all the alternatives, and it is possible that one of the alternatives could move forward as a final project.

One of the main questions that cyclists now have is whether or not the city is already backpedaling away from Mayor Villaraigosa’s commitment to creating 40 miles of bike facilities every year for the next five years.  One cyclists who wished to remain anonymous simply wrote, “the honeymoon is over.”

Bowen conceded that it will be difficult to meet the stated goal, but that with some flexibility it is still doable.  Projects that are tied up in environmental review might be replaced in the short-term by the politically easier projects, i.e. we may be seeing more Bike Friendly Streets and fewer Backbone Bikeway Network projects in the next couple of years.

Back when I was an advocate in New Jersey, a State Senator once told me that if we couldn’t defeat a project, we should focus on “studying it to death.”  I’m sure that at least some advocates of the Backbone Bikeway Network, who will remember the struggle to just get it included in the Bike Plan in the first place, are going to be wary of any plan to put these projects into a lengthy environmental review, but city staff is claiming that they are still really excited about these projects.

Bowen writes, “If we don’t do this environmental process, we won’t be able to do any of those 200 projects, ever.”