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 was basically designed to streamline the environmental review for a proposed new stadium for the Sacramento Kings, a Sacramento based basketball team that plays in the National Basketball Association. A last minute attempt to amend the bill to include some protections for organized labor was scuttled as the clock struck midnight.

Darrell Steinberg. The ##http://blogs.sacbee.com/capitolalertlatest/2013/09/legislature-approves-bill-to-build-new-arena-for-sacramento-kings.html#storylink=cpy##Sacramento Bee## reported, "Steinberg and Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, showed team pride by wearing purple ties for the occasion."

When it appeared that the legislature, which closed session for the year last night, would only have time for one CEQA bill, Steinberg closed shop on the progressive SB 731 and tried to cram parts of that legislation into SB 743. While nothing is ever certain with Jerry Brown, it is likely the governor who once declared “I never met a CEQA exemption he didn’t like,” wouldn’t sign legislation that includes a massive CEQA exemption.  The California Economic Summit reports that it was Brown that put an end to Steinberg’s larger CEQA reform bill in a negotiation that included assurances that this bill would earn his signature.

While Steinberg and bill supporters touted the environmental benefits of the SB 743, it does get rid of Level of Service (LOS) as the standard by which transportation projects are measured in transit priority areas (TPAs), not a single environmental group backed the legislation. In fact, a group of thirteen environmental groups including The Sierra Club, Trust South L.A., and the Planning and Conservation League signed a letter referring to the legislation as a “gut-and-amend.”

Large swaths of most urban areas are considered TPA’s. A TPA is defined as an area 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.

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Despite the LOS victory, many advocates fumed even that change wasn’t enough. Steinberg’s other CEQA Reform Bill, the one that didn’t pass, did emerge from Assembly Committees on Tuesday night actually changed the LOS requirement for the entire state. Under current law, the impact of projects, even ones that are building bike lanes, is measured based on how the project interrupts or supports the smooth flow of traffic. This lead to environmental review that literally forces the creation of wider, faster streets and the laying of more asphalt.

While most environmentalists and transportation reformers agree that this change to LOS is great news, there is considerable anger 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.

The critical counter-balance that got many environmental and environmental justice groups onboard 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, does not appear on SB 743. The leader of one environmental group wrote in a personal 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 CEQA lawsuits prevented the creation of construction jobs for the Expo Light Rail Line in Los Angeles. This is completely untrue, but the group has not corrected the report two days after being notified.

But broad reform will have to wait for 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.