New “Kings Arena” CEQA Bill Would Still Nix LOS in “Transit Priority Areas”

Steinberg’s hasty press conference after passage of SB 743

Last night, both California’s Senate and Assembly passed SB 743, Senator Darrell Steinberg’s legislation that replaced his original CEQA reform bill, SB 731, which promised to end the reign of Level of Service (LOS)  in California urban planning. SB 743 would still eliminate of LOS to a more limited extent, and although it’s unclear if Governor Jerry Brown will sign the bill, he reportedly assured Steinberg he would do so because he favors a more tepid CEQA reform bill. SB 743 was drafted primarily to streamline environmental review for a new stadium for the Sacramento Kings basketball team.

While SB 731 would have brought the statewide elimination of LOS — a car-centric transportation planning metric that basically puts the movement of cars over everything else — as part of environmental review, SB 743 would still nix the metric for projects within designated transit priority areas (TPAs). Large swaths of most urban areas are considered TPAs, which are defined as areas within a ½-mile of high quality transit: a rail stop or a bus corridor that provides or will provide at least 15-minute frequency service during peak hours by the year 2035.

According to the Sacramento Bee, Steinberg said he would add into SB 743 “a provision at the governor’s request that gives the governor’s Office of Planning and Research the go-ahead to develop a new way of measuring traffic impacts of major projects, based on total ‘vehicle miles traveled’ rather than intersection congestion.”

Darrell Steinberg. The Sacramento Bee reported, “Steinberg and Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, showed team pride by wearing purple ties for the occasion.”

Despite the LOS victory, many advocates fumed that it didn’t go far enough. Not a single environmental group backed the legislation, and thirteen — including The Sierra Club, Trust South L.A., and the Planning and Conservation League — signed a letter blasting the legislation as a “gut-and-amend.” SB 731, Steinberg’s larger CEQA reform bill that didn’t pass, would have ended the requirement to use LOS for the entire state. Under current law, the impact of projects, even ones that are building bike lanes, must be measured based on how the project interrupts or supports the flow of car traffic. This has lead to the creation of wider, faster streets and the laying of more asphalt to “mitigate” those projects’ impacts.

While most environmentalists and transportation reformers agree that this change to LOS is a positive step, many are angered that SB 731 was shelved so that a basketball team owned by billionaires could get an expedited environmental review that would lack teeth because the legal options available to the opposition are greatly reduced.

SB 743 leaves out a critical counter-balance measure that originally got many environmental justice groups onboard with CEQA reform and changing traffic impact studies, mainly to assess and try to mitigate the impacts of infill on local communities due to displacement and other localized impacts. The leader of one environmental group wrote in an email, “By cherry-picking one provision, LOS, underserved communities are again getting the short end of the stick in order for wealthy NBA owners to have an easier time building a stadium.”

Meanwhile, the CEQA Working Group, a coalition of business interests who want to do away with environmental protections, were happy to see broad CEQA reform shelved until next year. The group, which is co-chaired by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce President Gary Toebben, has refused to correct a report released in its name last week that falsely claimed CEQA lawsuits prevented the creation of construction jobs for the Expo Light Rail Line in Los Angeles.

Broad CEQA reform will have to wait until next year. As Autumn Bernstein joked on Streetsblog yesterday, there was good news for fans of bicycling, transit and transit oriented development yesterday. But, there was even better news for big businesses that don’t want to play ball with the state’s environmental laws.