My colleague Victoria Rome wrote a post last week about raids by the California state government on transportation funds. One thing that Victoria pointed out is Governor Schwarzenegger's attempt to "expedite construction of new roads and highways while skirting environmental review." I want to expand on why this is a terrifically bad idea.
First, the premise of the bill seems to be that compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is holding up the creation of new jobs. This is one of those widely-held conservative ideas, like "unregulated markets are always best," that doesn't hold up to empirical scrutiny. In my view, based on many years of experience working on CEQA matters, the biggest time-wasters are the public agencies and their consultants who try their best to hide the environmental effects of a project from the public. If they did their jobs fairly and quickly, projects would be up and running much faster than they are now.
Nothing in the Governor's proposed legislation would fix that. In fact, the proposal includes an incredible rule that requires local agencies to approve or deny a covered project within 15 days. This will only increase the incentive for project proponents to hide the ball. We have recently seen 6,000 page environmental impact reports on port projects. Even the most eagle-eyed public servant will have a hard time conducting a thoughtful review of a document that big in 15 days.
In addition, the 15 day up-or-down rule will effectively public participation in the environmental review of scores of highway projects affecting the lives of millions of Californians. The likely result from this is more litigation, rather then less, since the public will not have a meaningful way to have input into these projects outside of the courthouse.
Even more troubling is the potential effect of the proposed legislation on AB 32 and SB 375. Roughly 40 percent of California's greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. AB 32 commits the state to an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, and SB 375 provides tools to obtain reductions from transportation. Building more freeways will increase, not decrease, greenhouse gases from vehicle travel, and so having these projects approved without environmental study and without coordination with prior law makes no sense.
We need more jobs in California. A friend of mine likes to say that trouble is opportunity in work clothes. We also have a chance in California to create green jobs in the transportation industry, as Victoria points out in her blog. But trying to create jobs by hiding polluting projects from environmental review is not in anyone's best interest.