State Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is finally putting some sense back into the California Environmental Quality Act, at least when it comes to how the law treats traffic impacts. His bill to modernize CEQA is now taking overdue aim at the laws misguided way of dealing with traffic.
Nobody likes sitting in traffic. But the way CEQA currently handles the issue creates more environmental problems than it solves. As it is now, when someone wants to build a project, whether its new housing or a transit line, he or she needs to satisfy a byzantine requirement called Level of Service (LOS). What this really means is that project proponents may need to conduct costly studies to prove their projects wont delay drivers in the immediate vicinity by even a few seconds, regardless of the projects overall impact on driving patterns across the region. Absurdly, the law often ends up requiring more asphalt and driving, fewer crosswalks at intersections to protect pedestrians, and smaller and fewer projects in many of our neglected downtown and infill neighborhoods, leading to more development and traffic in the suburbs.
Instead of making driving a bit easier, CEQAs car-centric requirements have made our cities and towns harder to walk and bike in, while encouraging more sprawl, driving and pollution. That outcome is hard to square with the E in the California Environmental Quality Act.
Steinbergs bill moves California in the right direction by focusing on the real environmental impacts of driving, like air pollution, noise, and dangerous streets the impacts we want to study and avoid. Californias premier environmental law should make our cities and towns cleaner and safer. By moving toward these real environmental measures, Steinbergs bill makes good projects in the right locations easier and ensures more thorough environmental review of all projects. Projects would get rewarded for reducing overall driving and burdened if they contribute to more, resulting in a solution that both business advocates and environmentalists can agree is healthy in the long term for all Californians. This one change could do more to improve development patterns, air quality, and traffic than anything the state has done in years.
To be clear, nothing in this bill stops a local city council or Board of Supervisors from taking action to address traffic and congestion. Steinberg s bill simply removes the counter-productive way that LOS and CEQA function to require transportation system changes that actually harm the environment and make us less safe.
As president of the Council of Infill Buildersa nonprofit group that promotes environmentally responsible infill development as a solution to Californias growth challenges I believe this bill takes a significant step toward modernizing CEQA. But more importantly, this change will help the law work the way it was intended to promote environmental quality, while making it easier to build in locations that reduce environmental impacts and help California meet its growing demand for sustainable communities.
Curt Johansen is president of the Council of Infill Builders, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation committed to improving infill development.