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California regulators hope new rules will spur more bike lanes, housing near transit

A protected bike lane on Reseda Boulevard in Northridge. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
A protected bike lane on Reseda Boulevard in Northridge. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Bike lanes, mixed-use residential and commercial construction near transit and other development projects might get easier to build in California after regulators on Monday released a long-awaited overhaul of the state’s environmental law.

Regulators say the proposed changes, which modify rules under the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA, will help the state meet its ambitious goals to combat climate change. That law requires developers to disclose and minimize a project’s impact on the environment.

One key section of the proposal modifies how developers analyze traffic

Under the current interpretation of the law, developers have to measure their project’s effects on car congestion — something that often stymies the installation of bike lanes because the removal of car lanes could tie up vehicles.

The new effort would force projects to estimate the number of miles cars will travel on nearby roads. Since bike lanes won’t increase vehicle trips, and could reduce them, regulators hope the new rules could ease their development. The new proposal also would apply to residential construction in an effort to make it easier for developers to build pedestrian or bicycle friendly projects if they can show their projects will limit car travel.

California law requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. The state will not meet that goal without a substantial decline in the number of cars on the road, regulators have said, requiring a boom in dense housing near existing jobs and transit.

“These rules make clear that reducing vehicle miles resulting from projects is a state goal and an environmental benefit,” said Ken Alex, director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, in a statement.

Modifications to CEQA are often politically fraught because numerous powerful interest groups, including builders, environmentalists and unions, have significant stakes in how the existing process works.

These rules changes have been no exception. State lawmakers passed a law in 2013 telling regulators to write the new proposal in the same bill that aimed to speed construction of a Sacramento Kings basketball arena. The Kings are now playing their second season in the new building, and the regulations still aren’t complete.

Regulators are opening public comment on the CEQA overhaul in the coming weeks and will hold at least one public hearing before the proposal becomes final, according to a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency. Regulators are hoping the new rules will go into effect sometime in 2018.

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