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New State Bill Would Streamline CEQA Reviews for Bike Lanes

More good bike news from the California legislature this week: The extensive and costly environmental reviews required for on-street bike lanes would be streamlined under a bill approved unanimously by the State Assembly on Monday. The bill, AB 2245, would relieve planners of needing to conduct environmental impact reports (EIRs) for bike lane projects, which are required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The bill is expected to be signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown next month.

"We see this bill as a positive step in addressing the auto-oriented nature of CEQA, which has in the past stifled worthy bike lane projects that could help make bicycling safer, easier and more inviting to a larger share of Californians," the California Bicycle Coalition wrote.

When traffic lanes are removed to make room for bike lanes, CEQA typically requires planners to measure impacts using the car-centric formula known as Level of Service. That would change under the new bill. As the CBC explains, "AB 2245 essentially requires cities to examine the same environmental impacts for bike lane projects as under CEQA, but in a much more streamlined and cost-effective fashion":

AB 2245 requires cities and counties to prepare a traffic and safety study of the proposed bike lane project, conduct public hearings to discuss the project’s impact, and file CEQA-exemption notices with the state Office of Planning & Research as well as the County Clerk... Bike lane projects that languish in the environmental review process for up to two years could gain local clearance and exemption in a matter of months under AB 2245.

AB 2245 was introduced by Assembly member Cameron Smyth of Santa Clarita to help expedite the Los Angeles County Bike Plan, which calls for over 800 miles of new bike lanes in the next thirty years. The bill is co-sponsored by Metro, a.k.a. the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Despite the major environmental benefits of providing safer streets for people to travel by bike, CEQA review for bike lane projects "can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months to complete, often costing more than the actual project on the ground," the CBC notes. For the long-awaited protected bike lanes and pedestrian improvements on three blocks of Fell and Oak Streets, the SF Planning Department is currently reviewing the plan to determine how much environmental review is required by CEQA. That determination, planners say, will be a key factor in whether the project is completed by next spring, or possibly even later in 2013.

To the chagrin of many bicycle advocates in San Francisco, bike improvements in the city were stalled for four years after Rob Anderson sued the city in 2007 for inadequate environmental review, as required by CEQA, of the SF Bike Plan. A judge placed an injunction preventing the city from making any bike improvements until the exhaustive EIR was finally approved. The extra review resulted in nothing except delays: When the injunction was lifted in August 2010, the Bike Plan remained essentially unchanged.

Citywide bike plans could also be streamlined through the CEQA process under another bill making its way through the legislature known as SB 1380, which is expected to be approved by the Assembly this week. Stay tuned for more coverage of that bill.

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