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New Two-Year CEQA Exemption Aims To Fast Track Transportation Projects

A new bill enacted by the California legislature provides an opportunity to speed up approval of new and stalled transportation projects by limiting environmental review requirements. The legislation adds a new exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for sustainable transit projects, including new projects that would be built in existing public rights-of-way. Quickly approved by Governor Newsom, the bill is intended to stimulate economic recovery, and boost public transit agencies that are struggling with massive ridership declines as a result of COVID-19.

New Sustainable Transit Exemption Categories
Senate Bill (SB) 288 creates a new statutory exemption from environmental review pursuant to CEQA. The new statutory exemption takes effect on January 1, 2021, and expires on January 1, 2023. The exemption applies to (1) pedestrian and bicycle facilities; (2) wayfinding and customer information projects for transit riders, bicyclists or pedestrians; (3) transit prioritization projects; (4) designation of highway lanes or shoulders for bus-only lanes; (5) new or increased light rail, bus, or bus rapid transit service on existing public rights-of-way; and (6) charging or refueling infrastructure for zero-emission transit buses. Also exempted are utility infrastructure works associated with any of those six project categories, or projects that combine components of the exempted categories. Projects by cities or counties to reduce minimum parking requirements are also subject to the new statutory exemption. SB 288 also modifies an existing statutory exemption for bicycle transportation plans by deleting the requirements for a traffic and safety impact assessment and mitigation of potential impacts. The bill also extends that bicycle transportation plans exemption until January 1, 2030, instead of expiring on January 1, 2021.

Requirements for Application of Exemption
To rely on the new exemption, projects must be located in urbanized areas and on or within an existing public right-of-way. Exempt projects also cannot add new automobile capacity or require the demolition of affordable housing units. If a project’s cost exceeds $100 million, additional requirements apply: (1) the project must be incorporated into a regional transportation plan or other plan that has undergone programmatic-level environmental review, (2) all construction impacts must be fully mitigated and (3) the lead agency must prepare a business case analysis and a racial equity analysis. The lead agency must also hold at least three public meetings prior to approving the project, including one to review the project’s business case and racial equity analysis. Two public meetings are also required annually during project construction. In addition, the lead agency must commit to using a skilled and trained workforce, including by use of a project labor agreement.

Purposes and Benefits of New Exemption
The bill notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unemployment for 4.5 million Californians, and further threatens the 1.6 million transportation workers in the state. To avoid a surge in driving as the state reopens, the legislature wants to incentivize building public transit and completing street and bicycle lane projects as proven job generators with a 5 to 1 economic return. The purpose of the bill is to reduce the time and cost associated with delivering “sustainable transportation projects that can accelerate progress towards California’s environmental goals and improve the public health of Californians.” The new exemption should facilitate on-going efforts by public transit agencies in several California cities to make transit improvements in existing roadways while traffic volumes are reduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. San Francisco is moving forward with several traffic calming and safety projects, as well as implementation of new transit lanes for faster and more efficient bus routes. In downtown Los Angeles, active street improvement projects include addition of bus-only lanes and protected bike lanes in major corridor streets.

In addition to supporting public transit agencies, SB 288 can also create opportunities for new public-private partnerships. The private sector has shown increasing interest in investing in proposed streetcar, light rail and bus transit projects over the past several years. The new exemptions may help fast-track new transportation projects by eliminating CEQA review and thereby reducing one of the most time-consuming and risky elements of project development. Transportation agencies and private developers should carefully evaluate proposed projects to determine if they can take advantage of the new exemption over the next two years.