Governor Newsom recently signed into law Senate Bill 288 (the “Sustainable Transportation COVID-19 Recovery Act”), which will temporarily add new exemptions to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) statute. The purpose of SB 288 is to fast track transit and sustainable transportation projects, provide a boost to public transit agencies affected by COVID-19, aid economic recovery by producing jobs, and reduce driving and GHG emissions.
These statutory exemptions may help expedite environmental review of transportation projects that are specifically enumerated in the new legislation. Unlike regulatory “categorical exemptions” that are promulgated by the California Natural Resources Agency, the application of a statutory exemption cannot be negated by evidence of unusual circumstances or potentially significant environmental impacts, limiting the scope of potential CEQA challenges to a project.
SB 288 temporarily exempts the following until January 1, 2023:
- New bus rapid transit, bus, or light rail services on existing public rights-of-way or existing highway rights-of-way;
- Projects that designate or convert general purpose lanes or highway shoulders to bus-only lanes on highways with existing or future public transit service;
- Transit prioritization projects;
- Projects that improve customer information and wayfinding for transit riders, bicyclists, or pedestrians;
- Infrastructure to charge or refuel zero-emission transit buses;
- Projects by a city or county to reduce minimum parking requirements; and
- Pedestrian and bicycle facilities.
Certain criteria must be met for the above statutory exemptions to apply, such as the project has to be in an urbanized area and located within an existing public right-of-way. The latter is an important limitation, as public agencies are generally required to conduct CEQA review before acquiring property for a project. There are additional criteria for projects exceeding $100 million, including the project’s inclusion in a prior programmatic EIR, the completion of a racial equity analysis, and notice for public meetings.
In addition, SB 288 exempts certain bicycle transportation plans in an urbanized area from CEQA requirements until January 1, 2030. These bicycle transportation plans include plans for restriping of streets and highways, bicycle parking and storage, signal timing to improve street and highway intersection operations, and the related signage for bicycles, pedestrians, and vehicles. SB 288 also repeals the requirements to prepare a traffic and safety impact assessment and to include mitigation measures in the bicycle transportation plan for potential vehicular traffic impacts and bicycle and pedestrian safety impacts.
While this pandemic has significantly impacted transit agencies, it could also be an opportunity. Construction during this time may cause a lesser disruption to riders, drivers, and local businesses, and now SB 288 also provides a temporary window to exempt specific transportation projects from project-level CEQA review. In California’s road to recovery, SB 288 may provide the additional support needed to allow transit and sustainable projects to move forward.