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Monday, Sep 25, 2023

Stop Giving Them a Pass

In his op-ed in the Oct. 17 issue (“New Line on Construction”), Joel Epstein comments on Alex Padilla’s SB 292, which would give favorable treatment to a downtown L.A. stadium project by placing a limit on legal challenges to the project under the California Environmental Quality Act. The bill itself was a classic bit of vanity legislation mainly aimed at benefiting the proposed Farmers Field, but Epstein was quick to seize upon it in the hopes that the Westside subway extension could get similarly preferential treatment.

The law’s proponents suggest that these a la carte CEQA rules are needed in the name of job creation. “Job creation” and “job killer” seem these days to be buzzwords, whether they come from big labor or big business. In both cases, they translate to “anything goes,” and it’s hard not to get the impression that many from both sides would sell their own grandmothers in the name of these buzzwords. In the case of the flawed SB 292 and AB 900, which were passed with 11th hour ploys, it’s not their grandmothers who are being sold, but their children, since the environmental protections CEQA offers are meant to benefit future generations.

Should there be CEQA reform? Yes, definitely. But the solution isn’t pay-to-play special-interest legislation, which has the potential to undermine CEQA for the kinds of projects that gave rise to CEQA in the first place – such as multibillion-dollar public works projects.

CEQA streamlining needs to be done in an orderly, rational way that doesn’t avoid process, public comment and, most importantly, common sense. The biggest abuses of CEQA seem to be anti-competitive lawsuits for commercial projects, and CEQA reform should focus on streamlining the process and eliminating such abuse. Yet it is quite naturally the biggest projects that need to go through the biggest vetting processes. Cutting corners on the big projects, while subjecting Mrs. Goldstein’s remodel of her house to a potentially more drawn-out process flies in the face of common sense. It represents the very kind of cockamamie policy we have reliably come to expect from our state Legislature.

Of course, a project with as many potential impacts as a subway should be subject to the strictest and most deliberative environmental reviews, and that includes potential challenges. Fortunately, the Westside subway is also subject to the federal environmental process, the National Environmental Policy Act, and it’s unlikely that the feds are going to change their standards just because shortsighted people want to take shortcuts.

More public transportation is generally a good thing, but the process is even more important. There has to be more than the transit advocates’ burning conviction that they know best and we should simply trust them. It’s not only important to do the right thing, but to do it right.

Effective processes

While CEQA is all about environmental protections, it reminds us of the importance of putting in place effective processes to ensure that good decisions and good policies are made when it comes to these massive public works projects. Often, there’s only the political process, and, all too often, it defies common sense.

In the case of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, this is the process that led to the Green Line stopping short of LAX and which now has Metro building a “UCLA/Westwood” station almost a mile away from the UCLA campus. This is the process that is going to result in a subway system that effectively gives the Veterans Affairs medical campus two subway stations, while leaving people to take the bus to UCLA, medical facilities and all. It is a process that is clearly flawed.

How about also putting better protections in place to make sure that scarce taxpayer dollars are going to be spent in a way that will actually give taxpayers the best value for their money? Federal funding should not be made available to projects that don’t make the best and most effective use of taxpayer dollars. Instead, projects elsewhere that can better withstand scrutiny should be prioritized.

And that’s exactly why CEQA and the legal process should not be weakened for Metro or any other government agency. Government agencies can sometimes take on a life of their own, and the bureaucracies they establish and the internal cultures they create sometimes seem most bent on self-perpetuation and justifying their own existence. The courts can serve as an important check on government agency megalomania, can play a critical role in making sure that public agencies don’t run amok and can place needed constraints on their tentacles, as the consent decree imposed upon Metro in the ’90s demonstrates.

It’s just one example of why the process shouldn’t be artificially rushed. While for Machiavellian subway enthusiasts, the end may always justify the means, for those of us who believe in good government and want to avoid omnipotent government leviathans, the process is every bit as important.

If we remember that the process is both timeless and important, and if we act upon it, there may be hope yet for Granny and our kids.

John Mirisch is a member of the Beverly Hills City Council.

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