CEQA Reform and Transit Planning

Jan 13th, 2013 | Posted by

Yesterday the Planning and Conservation League held a daylong symposium on the California Environmental Quality Act. Coming amidst a concerted effort to reform the 43-year old law, the PCL wanted to use the day as an opportunity to rally progressives and environmentalists to defend the status quo and oppose any changes to CEQA. However, the day’s discussions revealed a series of divisions among the ostensible allies regarding CEQA’s future. While the PCL wants to frame the debate as one of heroic environmental and community advocates resisting evil oil companies and sprawlmongers who want to destroy environmental protections, the reality is far more complex.

The PCL Twitter account provided a good overview of the day’s discussion, as did Coast Law Group, the San Diego law firm that is doing great work by taking on the flawed SANDAG transportation plan. Both feeds provide a good sense of the conversation; I’ve also had participants email me their impressions of the event.

One of the more revealing moments of the day came when Stuart Flashman, a longtime opponent of the California high speed rail project, attacked the California High Speed Rail Authority for rejecting the Interstate 5 alignment through the San Joaquin Valley before beginning CEQA review. Some participants nodded their heads and agreed with Flashman’s contention that this was an example of the CHSRA abusing and evading CEQA.

But that’s not an accurate charge. The route for the California high speed rail project was selected after 10 years of public hearings and discussion. It was ratified by the state legislature and then by voters at the November 2008 election. The route was selected based on sound transit planning principles – one of which is “send the trains where the people are.” If HSR followed Interstate 5 through the Valley, it would bypass over 2 million potential riders. Serving those riders helps reduce carbon emissions and other aerial pollutants in the Valley, where transportation is a leading cause of severe air pollution.

I don’t see how it makes sense to force the transit planning process into a CEQA framework. Proposed rail routes, for example, should be planned based on how well they will serve the city or region or state transportation need. Once a route is chosen, that route alone should be submitted for environmental review. If it passes review, great, build! If it doesn’t pass review, then things can be fixed. CEQA was never intended to provide a process for evaluation of different routes. But if that’s what Flashman wants, well, he too is arguing for CEQA reform.

That’s just one example of how CEQA has become a de facto state planning law when it was never designed or intended to play that role. CEQA is designed to ensure that new projects have to publicize how they conform to different environmental standards. It wasn’t designed to pick winners and losers. It wasn’t designed to shape transportation systems or regional land use plans. If people want a law that does so, then they are looking to reform CEQA, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Since CEQA passed in 1970, California’s carbon emissions have soared and tens of thousands of square miles of new sprawl has been built. Clearly, CEQA hasn’t achieved the goal of building a more sustainable state or protecting its environment. California’s neighbors to the north, Oregon and Washington, have less sprawl and stronger land use planning laws than does the Golden State. Those who want to reduce carbon emissions as well as those who don’t want to reduce them both see CEQA as a tool to serve their own ends. Even those who came to defend CEQA wound up making the case for change, even if unintentionally.

Yesterday’s event clarified that there are three distinct groups when it comes to CEQA reform, and while their positions may at times overlap, they are not the same:

1. Businesses and developers. These stakeholders are tired of the expense and delays caused by the CEQA process. We should not universalize this group, as their positions and intentions are not all the same. Some of them do not have good environmental intentions, such as oil refinery operators, sprawl builders, and toxic polluters. But some of them have very good environmental intentions, such as those promoting infill development and those wanting to build large-scale solar or wind projects. Their preferred CEQA reforms would probably not be ones that work for progressives or environmentalists, as they’d come with too many loopholes. Yet they are also able to play the long game with increasing success, winning legislative support for specific CEQA exemptions as even Democrats have a harder time justifying a broken CEQA process. Currently they’re driving the CEQA reform process.

2. Sustainability and transit advocates. These stakeholders are increasingly angry at watching CEQA used by NIMBYs to slow down, make more expensive, or even stop entirely those projects that are indisputably good for the environment. California cannot address climate change, stop sprawl, or provide for sustainable and broadly shared prosperity without building more solar panels, wind turbines, dense urban developments, or mass transit routes. They are aware that the status quo has failed California and that change is needed immediately to avert catastrophe and provide environmental and social justice. So on that level they have a lot of sympathy with the well-intentioned folks in group #1. At the same time, they do not want to see CEQA gutted and projects that are bad for the environment or that increase carbon emissions, like the freeway-heavy SANDAG transportation plan, become permissible under a reformed CEQA. That gives them sympathy with the folks in group #3.

3. NIMBYs. Some may object at my use of that term to describe this group of stakeholders, but it remains the most accurate. Groups like PCL and the numerous small groups that pop up to oppose specific developments and projects regardless of their environmental impact are not acting out of concern for the climate, but out of their own self-determined notion of what counts as environmental protection. They like CEQA as it stands, because it gives them a way to attack infill development and mass transit projects that are very good for the environment but otherwise offend their individual sensibilities. Sometimes they do use CEQA to attack truly bad projects, but increasingly they are using it to undermine environmentally friendly projects. Peninsula anti-HSR activists, Beverly Hills anti-subway forces, even the guy who stopped the San Francisco bike plan in court for four years under CEQA because he claimed it would cause traffic delays are all classic examples of this group. They don’t take climate change very seriously, they hate density, and they are not much interested in social or environmental justice. They just want to protect their own privileges. But they also know that they can sway a lot of people in group #2 to their side by rallying against the more egregious members of group #1. That was clearly PCL’s goal with yesterday’s event.

I consider myself part of group #2, and I have been urging members of that group to take the lead in charting a new and better course for CEQA, rather than leaving it in the hands of group #1. Several of us in group #2 have been sketching out what a better CEQA law looks like, one that improves public participation, provides better incentives for good urban planning, and helps reduce carbon emissions without empowering people who oppose those values and goals.

On the other hand, the members of group #3 may well succeed in framing the debate instead as one of defending CEQA against the bad actors in group #1. I think that would be a huge mistake, not just in terms of politics (it could make more likely a moderate Democratic and Republican alliance to do bad things to CEQA), but also in terms of a missed opportunity. CEQA can be better. Land use planning in California can be better. Carbon emissions can be lower and sprawl can be reduced. We know that CEQA as it stands today won’t achieve those goals. Why not seize the moment and build something better?

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg walked a fine line at yesterday’s event, acknowledging legitimate concerns while vowing that the essence of CEQA must remain unchanged and reminding the audience that the law has a LOT of defenders in the Capitol. I consider him a part of group #2, and I believe he is one who can help drive a good reform through the Legislature – and one who would help kill a bad reform. But a good reform can only happen if environmentalists, transit advocates, those who want environmental and social justice, labor unions, and others interested in building a 21st century economy step up and start driving the conversation.

The suggestions laid out by SPUR in 2006 remain a good starting point. Let’s hope those start to drive the discussion over CEQA’s future.

  1. D. P. Lubic
    Jan 13th, 2013 at 19:45

    Off topic but too much fun not to share: the world’s first subway, London’s Underground, well-known as The Tube, celebrated its 150th anniversary today (Jan. 13, 2013) with a nostalgic train–operated by steam! Steam in the subway! And check out the cars! How many of us would like a morning commute on something like that?



  2. datacruncher
    Jan 13th, 2013 at 21:35

    Monday Jan 14, the state Public Works Board is expected to approve CHSRA starting purchase of 356 parcels in Fresno and Madera Counties. Once approved the priority will be the 75 parcels needed later this year to start construction.
    Agenda with staff report
    Agenda with parcel numbers

    Reality Check Reply:

    Rail authority gets OK to solicit 356 Valley parcels

    The state’s Public Works Board on Monday cleared the way for the California High-Speed Rail Authority to begin negotiating for property in Fresno and Madera counties needed for high-speed train tracks.

    In a meeting that lasted less than 10 minutes, the board — which includes the directors of the state’s Finance, General Services and Transportation departments — voted 3-0 to approve the formal selection of 356 separate parcels by the rail authority.

    The Public Works Board is in charge of buying land for highway and other transportation projects in the state.

    Rail authority officials can now start making offers to owners whose property is targeted for the first stage of construction. Those parcels are either in the path of the tracks themselves or will be affected by related construction, including overpasses to carry city streets and county roads over the tracks or the relocation of Highway 99 between Ashlan and Clinton avenues.

    “By enabling us to begin making offers to landowners for their property we are on our way to starting construction this summer,” said Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

  3. Jo
    Jan 13th, 2013 at 22:01

    Any CEQA reform should include stricter/better land use planning that is more regional in nature.

    Take for example what is going on in Fresno now. Developers have recently announced that they are proceeding with two huge developments near Fresno; one across the San Joaquin River in Madera County, the other near Millerton Lake. Both developments are slated to have over 100,000+ people each.

    The city of Fresno who has had horrible planning in the pass recently approved a new plan to try discourage urban sprawl, and to encourage infill – out of desperate need of course. The local building industry of course was totally against it. But the Fresno City Council stood firm, and approved the new plan – all apparently to no avail.

    The developers simply turned to the Counties of Madera and Fresno who have no qualms about approving these developments. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    Is California up to approving better and more regional planning guidelines? Or despite CEQA reform, are we going to have more of the same type of bad planning?

    Jo Reply:

    P.S. It will be interesting where they will obtain the water rights from for these developments. Will they get it from farming interests who are so much against HSR because it will take AG land?

    Ted Judah Reply:


    Nathanael Reply:

    Gah. What we can hope is that train service in Fresnco will cause these developments to fail as people demand to live closer to the train station. This has happened in decades long past.

  4. Mattie F.
    Jan 13th, 2013 at 22:28

    Coast Law Group? You mean the guy trying to destroy San Diego’s most popular 4th of July fireworks shows?

    Good to know he’s found something better to do with his time.

  5. Alon Levy
    Jan 14th, 2013 at 11:36

    I know a lot of sustainability advocates who not only think that CEQA is a critical part of protecting the environment, but also accuse CEQA opponents including you of shilling for developer interests.

    joe Reply:

    I know a lot of sustainability advocates that can’t explain what is a sustainable system or give an example.

    Being an advocate and being informed are not the same.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Yeah, the people I’m thinking of know sustainability better than anyone else in this forum will. Thinking mainly of the people fighting industrial solar plants in sensitive desert biomes and such.

    joe Reply:

    How is fighting a desert solar plant pro-sustainability? What are they sustaining or protecting ?

    You know I have a PhD in Ecology & consulted in cold desert ecosystems.

    Joey Reply:

    Okay, what’s your professional opinion on the impact of solar farms on desert ecosystems?

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Yes, there are those who believe that. I don’t see how anyone could read my posts and reach that conclusion – especially given my full throated support for the lawsuit against SANDAG – but I have been around long enough to know how these kinds of games work.

    I would agree that CEQA is a critical part of protecting the environment. What I’m also saying is that it could be done a LOT better, without the negative aspects, without undermining transit and renewable energy.

    There’s an opportunity to have a better statewide land use planning process. Why not seize it?

    joe Reply:

    CEQA review process on an infill project in San Carlos near the Caltrain ROW.


    The San Carlos City Council discovered Monday night what the planning commission learned over the course of a few meetings — it’s difficult signing off on an environmental report that says the proposed Transit Village development along El Camino Real won’t have unmanageable impacts.
    [all impacts are manageable]

    Council Member Mark Olbert brought up two main concerns at the meeting — [1] the development could change [2] “the character of the way San Carlos looks and feels,” and east-side residents would lose their view west.

    [1] Attorney Anna Shimko, hired by the city to assist with the environmental report, told the council that any challenges to the document must be “based on substantial fact.”

    [2] Michael Kay, a consultant who oversaw the city’s environmental impact report for the project, told the council that “private views are not protected” under the state’s environmental impact law.

    Transit Village would feature eight buildings of up to four stories on the strip between El Camino Real and the Caltrain tracks, from Northwood Drive to Arroyo Avenue. The mixed-use development would include 280 market-rate apartments, offices, shops and restaurants.

    Peter Reply:

    I wonder if anyone has commented on the fact that HSR overlaps with the proposed Transit Development, especially if San Carlos becomes part of the mid-line 4-track overtake.

    joe Reply:

    Nope. Send in that comment.

    Curious as to how this overlap was determined.

    Peter Reply:

    Dude, I personally don’t care. Not my turf. But I’m sure people in San Carlos will be annoyed if any of their scarce tax dollars are used to fund this project only to have it be ripped out in a few years.

    Go to Clem’s blog and search for “transit village”.

    Joey Reply:

    joe: here’s your 30 seconds of searching

  6. Derek
    Jan 14th, 2013 at 16:51

    Amtrak, CHSRA plan joint HSR gear order
    By Douglas John Bowen, RailwayAge

    Two U.S. high speed rail players, Amtrak and the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), will combine efforts to advance a joint order of up to 62 high speed rail trainsets, with a Request for Information (RFI) possibly issued as early as this Thursday.

    The joint plan, first reported by Trains magazine, would direct 32 trainsets to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, with 30 being delivered to the Golden State.

    Joey Reply:

    Because what we need here is another Acela disaster.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Let’s re-invent the wheel and get a failing grade at it. Hmm, maybe we can get Rohr and Garrett involved again, if they are still around.

    Peter Reply:

    This just seems completely idiotic. I thought the plan was to purchase off-the-shelf trains, to lower costs?

    Miles Bader Reply:

    Wait, what about this indicates they won’t be more or less “off the shelf”?

    [No new train for a new system is going to be entirely unchanged from the same train on another system, there’s always going to be at least random tweaks here and there, choose your seating layout, etc…]

    joe Reply:

    That RFI is how the Govt’ learns what’s available. Then they an issue a procurement.
    Importing the Fiat 500 required tweaks and adjustments for the US market and consumers.

    Jeff Morales is speculated to be the one combining orders (to save money).

    Tin-foil hat time. We were warned CAHSR will be a PB system like BART – unique and expensive. Now what is the PB Manchurian Executive doing? It has to be bad – by definition.

    BruceMcF Reply:

    And Amtrak is pushing to change to a performance based crash standard, with an intention of moving to a standard that can be met with off the shelf equipment.

    Peter Reply:

    But in other related news, didn’t we also read that they wanted to in some way push for a homegrown HSR industry with this?

  7. John Burrows
    Jan 14th, 2013 at 22:42

    It seems likely that Lennar is going to get that $1.7 billion loan from the China Development Bank to help fund their projects at Hunters Point and Treasure Island. Apparently the China Railway Construction Corporation, which has a San Mateo office,will be the general contractor on the project although they will have to play by our rules. I doubt if the CRCC has ever had to deal with anything like the CEQA process but it looks like they may soon be getting some experience in environmentally friendly construction.

    I don’t know if CRCC participation would be a prerequisite for any involvement the China Development Bank might have in future high speed rail funding in California, but if they do Hunters Point and Treasure Island, they will have had some experience with our environmental rules.

  8. Rich
    Jan 19th, 2013 at 22:10


    As I noted before, you appear to want CEQA to be designed to force a particular outcome as opposed to being a review and disclosure process that leaves the evaluation of merits of a project to the decision-makers. This is evident in that you wholeheartedly support using CEQA as a tool to force SANDAG to make a better plan, but you denounce the use of anti-HSR advocates using CEQA as a means to stop or hinder HSR development. So, you want CEQA to promote the kind of projects you support and stop the kind of projects you oppose. I don’t see how that will result in any kind of fair evaluation. I would prefer that the arena for resolving disputes about what we want politically should be the planning process, and the environmental review process should be about providing the information about the environmental consequences of different proposals. Instead, what we have is advocates of all stripes seeing CEQA as just another tool in their political arsenal to try and gain advantage. As long as there is this intent to politicize CEQA, you will see frustration on the part of proponents for any kind of project (HSR, transit, infill, sprawl, industrial, highways, etc.) that CEQA is being “misused” by project opponents. It is so much stones thrown at glass houses to me. CEQA reform will only work if there is consensus that the agreed upon environmental process can work for all parties, not just one side. On the other hand, the cynic in me, says that CEQA will continue to be politicized and will be whatever the dominant political power says it is. Alas.

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