Editorial

California's signature environmental law is being abused (again) to stop an environmentally friendly project

Critics of the California Environmental Quality Act have a new poster child for why state leaders need to take another look at the 47-year-old law. The Parking Spot, which operates airport parking lots across the country, has used CEQA to sue the Los Angeles International Airport over its $5-billion plan to modernize ground transportation services at LAX by finally — finally! — connecting a train line to the airport and providing a meaningful alternative to driving.

There’s a perennial fight over California’s signature environmental law, which was enacted as a way to inform and empower the public by requiring developers to disclose the environmental effects of their projects in detailed reports and to mitigate any harm they may cause. While CEQA is a vital tool that has made countless projects better since its inception, it is also too easily used to stop projects for reasons that have nothing to do with environmental protection.

Organized labor groups have used the threat of CEQA lawsuits to force developers to hire unionized labor. Companies have filed CEQA lawsuits to block competing businesses. Homeowner groups have used CEQA to stop construction or shrink the size of apartment complexes in the middle of cities. And now there’s the Parking Spot lawsuit, which on the surface certainly looks like one company’s attempt to ensure that the airport’s ground transportation plan doesn’t hurt its business.

Perhaps you’ve seen the Parking Spot’s yellow and black-spotted shuttles as you inched through bumper-to-bumper traffic while circling the terminals, or as you inhaled exhaust while waiting curbside for your ride to arrive. LAX is consistently ranked among the worst airports for customer service and convenience, in part because of the horrendous congestion, confusing layout and shortage of good public transit options.

The airport’s Landside Access Modernization Program seeks to improve the passenger experience by building an automated people mover between the terminals and two transportation centers east of the airport. Those centers are where travelers could pick up a rental car or catch a ride — whether it be the train, a bus, a taxi or a parking-lot shuttle. The centers also include new garages for long- and short-term parking.

The Parking Spot’s lawsuit alleges that the airport violated CEQA by failing to adequately study how the project might affect the area’s environment. That’s right — a parking lot operator is complaining that officials didn’t thoroughly analyze traffic or air pollution around the airport from a project that makes it easier for people to not contribute to traffic and air pollution around the airport.

Specifically, the company contends that a traffic study in the environmental impact report analyzed what would happen if commercial shuttles like the Parking Spot’s were barred from the central terminal area and had to pick up and drop off customers at the remote transportation centers. That’s a concern for the company because remote drop-offs might make its service less appealing to customers who want to be dropped directly in front of the terminal.

The Parking Spot and other commercials shuttles want LAX to also study an alternative scenario: What would be the effect if single-passenger commercial cars and rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft were barred from the central terminal, but shuttles were allowed. LAX officials did not explore that possibility, they said, because the fate of shuttles and cars will be decided in the future.

A judge will determine whether LAX officials made the right call. Or the airport will make a deal with the company to scuttle the lawsuit and keep the project on track. What’s frustrating is that a $5-billion regional project that is good for the environment and good for mobility could be delayed by a squabble over where parking-lot shuttles can pick up and drop off customers. Is that what the authors and original advocates for CEQA envisioned?

CEQA reform is often discussed in Sacramento but rarely made a top priority because it is so difficult. Well-intentioned advocates on opposite sides can point to the same stalled project as an example of both CEQA success and CEQA abuse. Instead, lawmakers have tried to carve out exemptions from CEQA — for example, by fast tracking CEQA lawsuits for stadiums, arenas and certain housing developments. But as California ramps up investments in major infrastructure projects like the LAX people mover, state leaders ought to be looking for ways to ensure CEQA isn’t an impediment to progress.

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