Capitol Alert

California’s ‘NEPA-geddon’ could stop billions in roadwork

Caltrans and private contractors worked on a road resurfacing project on Highway 99 just north of the Sutter County line in 2009. California lawmakers are giving quick consideration to a bill meant to keep billions of dollars worth of projects on track by streamlining the environmental review process.
Caltrans and private contractors worked on a road resurfacing project on Highway 99 just north of the Sutter County line in 2009. California lawmakers are giving quick consideration to a bill meant to keep billions of dollars worth of projects on track by streamlining the environmental review process. RBenton@sacbee.com

California’s last legislative session ended with hundreds of bills left on the table, but perhaps none as potentially significant as measures to preserve a decade-old arrangement with the federal government that speeds up California transportation projects.

The pact expired Dec. 31, and now the Brown administration and lawmakers are racing to revive it and keep billions of dollars in planned projects on schedule.

Assembly Bill 28 by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, would allow the state to continue assuming federal responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act for road projects. In particular, the state waives its immunity to be sued in federal court for any project-related lawsuits.

Whatever the increase in the state’s legal exposure, officials say, is more than made up for by quicker projects that cost less.

“We see it as a very important tool,” said Melanie Perron, Caltrans’ assistant deputy director for legislative affairs.

The AB 28 push comes as Brown and Democratic legislative leaders try to meet a self-imposed April 6 deadline to reach a deal to raise several billion dollars a year for road maintenance and repairs. Brown and lawmakers have put forward several proposals.

But any package would be undermined by the end of the state-federal agreement.

Unless AB 28 becomes law by March 31, Caltrans will have to start asking the U.S. Federal Highway Administration to sign off on each project’s environmental review. The federal agency, though, shrunk its environmental review department after California and some other states took over the responsibility, creating a backlog of work and a potential “NEPA-geddon” for California.

A recent committee analysis of AB 28, citing Caltrans estimates, said the change would hit 314 state and local projects, totaling $11 billion, that are in the environmental review phase.

State lawmakers could have avoided the rush if they had passed a bill to extend the program last year. The proposal, though, became part of a potential road-funding package that also included higher gas taxes and fees, and no agreement emerged before the Nov. 30 end of an 18-month special session on transportation. Stand-alone bills extending the program – one by a Democrat, one by a Republican – never advanced.

“The loss of the immunity waiver would be a self-inflicted wound,” said Bill Higgins, executive director of the California Association of Councils of Governments, whose members have made AB 28’s passage a priority. The bill requires a two-thirds majority to pass.

A version of AB 28 that unanimously passed the Assembly last month would have made the state-federal program permanent. But the bill approved last week by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee sets a three-year limit “given the uncertainty surrounding the new presidential administration.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to hear the bill next week, followed by the full Senate. Then the measure would return to the Assembly for final consideration.

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