A recently passed law covering environmental challenges to the proposed Farmers Field stadium has the potential to change the way big transit projects proceed in California. The new law, which benefits L.A.’s vision for a National Football League stadium in downtown Los Angeles, may also allow for expedited review (within 175 days) of California Environmental Quality Act lawsuits filed against the Wilshire subway.
State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys, the author of the stadium bill, has gotten the real estate and infrastructure construction industries’ attention with his statements to the media that the new law also covers the Wilshire subway.
Here’s how he put it: “The subway is a natural from a job-creation standpoint, from an investment standpoint, from an emission-reduction and air-quality standpoint.”
Of course, he should have added my favorite standpoint – mobility – in this great big freeway of a city, but maybe he forgot.
Infill developers, engineering firms and the building trades may also like Padilla’s belief that Thomas Properties Group Inc.’s ambitious office and residential development plans for the NBC Universal lot in Universal City falls within the scope of the new law. Designed to encourage construction and stimulate employment, the Farmers Field law gets to what is increasingly the heart of the problem: the lengthy delays caused by litigation challenging the environmental impact report required on any large public or private project.
It is not that CEQA is bad, it is that CEQA litigation has become a clog in the wheel of any economic development and transit expansion project in Los Angeles.
While Padilla and yours truly are perhaps just being optimistic, there is no doubt that the dysfunctional Legislature is looking for ways to unclog the economic development and jobs blockage caused by CEQA litigation. The lawsuits brought by often deep-pocketed and well-connected neighbors, who are less than excited about disruptive construction in their neighborhoods, delay and sometimes kill worthwhile public infrastructure projects.
Whether it actually applies to the subway or not, the new stadium law demonstrates a clear legislative willingness to help big job-producing construction that benefits society and the environment. And Padilla appears to understand that CEQA should be used to reduce carbon emissions rather than as part of the not-in-my-backyard forces’ legal strategy to stop a train or other large project. There. I have hesitated to say it for too long because it seemed so harsh. But that is what many of these lawyered-up litigants are, and their litigiousness serves no one but the attorneys and sometimes themselves.
Time is money and perhaps nowhere more so than when it comes to Angelenos’ ability to get to work on reliable trains immune from the choking and maddening gridlock that plagues L.A.’s roads. Just ask commuters wise enough or with no choice but to ride the Metro trains Los Angeles already has.
Imagine how the Beverly Hills School District, which has sued the Metropolitan Transportation Authority seeking records related to the subway’s environmental review, reacted to the Padilla bill. A handful of Beverly Hills residents led by a vocal school board has been spending madly to stop Metro from building the subway along a route that will attract the greatest number of riders but also require tunneling under Beverly Hills High School. Questioning the ability of Metro to safely tunnel under the school site, the school board is throwing every obstacle it can in the way of a train that will bring commuters to a station at Constellation Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars in Century City.
Protracted litigation serves the school board and its lawyers; expedited judicial review serves the public and L.A.’s transit system. That is why the new downtown stadium law may be good news for transit riders. The added costs associated with these delays are hardly something we can afford.
The Beverly Hills school board is spending scarce education dollars on lawyers, lobbyists and PR people skilled at ginning up irrational fears about the safety of tunneling tens of feet below the high school property. Though the subway extension has received more public scrutiny than any other project in Metro history, a hired gun from the district’s gold-plated PR firm recently said a costly public infrastructure project like this should be transparent. Did I hear that right? How much did those pearls of wisdom cost the residents of Beverly Hills?
Until Beverly Hills cuts up the school board’s credit card, I am hoping the coalition of business, civic, labor, religious and environmental groups that recognizes this area’s desperate need for more public transit continues to work together to promote the subway along a route that serves the most riders.
And I wish for a pro-commuter outcome in the litigation brought by the deceptively named anti-Expo Line Neighbors for Smart Rail. NIMBYs should not get the chance to kill good transit and development projects by the slow torture of endless CEQA litigation. Maybe the new stadium law is a help to smart business and civic leaders with the vision and commitment to work for L.A.’s economic recovery and long-needed public transit that will benefit us all.
Joel Epstein is a lapsed lawyer and L.A. strategic communications and public affairs consultant who focuses on transportation, development and other urban issues.
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