California lawmakers introduced legislation Friday to bypass a key state environmental law that would dramatically ease the construction of rail, bus and other transit projects connected to Los Angeles’ bid to host the Olympic Games in 2028.
Under the bill, any public transportation effort related to the city’s Olympics bid would be exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s primary environmental law governing development. The law, known as CEQA, requires developers to disclose and minimize a project’s impact on the environment, often a time-consuming and costly process that involves litigation.
The measure, Senate Bill 789, also provides major CEQA relief to help the construction of an NBA arena for the Los Angeles Clippers in nearby Inglewood.
If it passes, the bill would speed transit officials’ attempts to build rail and bus lines in advance of the 2028 Olympic Games while also providing a boost to the arena’s chances at getting completed. Doing so, however, would cut through longstanding regulations that environmentalists and community activists in California have held as sacrosanct to preserving the state’s natural beauty and involving residents in the development process.
State Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), who represents Inglewood in the Legislature and is the author of the bill, said both the Olympics and construction of the Clippers’ arena were too important to risk stalling through the regular CEQA process.
“These major projects will help boost the economy in Inglewood and the Greater Los Angeles region, while improving investment, entertainment and highlighting Inglewood’s significance to California,” Bradford said in a statement.
But SB 789 already is drawing swift pushback from environmental interests and those opposed to the arena. And it didn’t come at the behest of LA 2028, the Olympic bid committee, or the city of Los Angeles.
“Mayor Garcetti did not request these amendments, nor did LA 2028, and we do not need them to make the 2028 Games a success,” Garcetti spokesman Alex Comisar said in a statement, adding that the mayor first saw the final legislation Friday morning and was still reviewing it.
Los Angeles regional transportation officials plan to increase services dramatically in advance of the Olympic Games, including expanded light rail in Leimert Park, Inglewood and El Segundo, and from Koreatown through West L.A. Many projects already are under construction, and others are far along in the environmental review process. A proposed people-mover at Los Angeles International Airport linking terminals with shuttle buses, ride-hailing services and a new light-rail connection is currently facing a CEQA lawsuit.
It’s not immediately clear which transportation projects the legislation could speed up, but the language is written broadly to include anything policymakers could tie to the Olympics bid.
Michael Turner, deputy executive officer of government relations at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, said the agency also wasn’t involved in crafting the legislation.
“We’re looking at the bill to see what kind of impacts it would have,” Turner said.
For the proposed Clippers arena in Inglewood, the measure goes further than many other bills lawmakers have passed recently to facilitate the construction of NFL stadiums and NBA arenas. SB 789 exempts from CEQA entirely a new transit link between a light-rail stop and the proposed arena, which would also connect to the under-construction NFL stadium for the Rams and the Chargers.
It also expands the arena developers’ ability to take private property through eminent domain — except nearby residences — to ease construction. And the bill aims to speed court-decision deadlines for any lawsuits the arena might face, as well as halt a judge’s ability to block the project, even if the judge found an environmental review didn't adequately study traffic problems or had other flaws.
Bills, such as SB 789, that carve out exemptions to CEQA frequently face substantial opposition at the Capitol. Environmentalists who believe the law is essential to lessen the impacts of development are among many powerful interest groups that combat efforts to weaken it.
David Pettit, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the bill “the worst CEQA exemption bill I’ve ever seen,” and vowed to fight its passage.
The legislation, Pettit said, was unnecessary because the arena isn’t scheduled to open until 2024 and the Olympic Games are in 2028, so environmental reviews for the projects should be completed well in advance. The bill, he said, also includes a provision that lowers greenhouse gas emission standards for the arena under CEQA beyond what the law typically allows.
“In a state where we’re proud to show the rest of the country our dedication on climate change, that’s crazy,” Pettit said.
Little is known about the proposed Clippers arena. There aren't any public site plans or renderings. The only specifics that have been made available are that it will be privately financed, seat 18,000 to 20,000 people and will include parking, a practice facility and team offices. The city of Inglewood is in the middle of formal negotiations with the Clippers over the facility.
The Clippers currently play at the AEG-owned Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, which they share with the Lakers, and their lease runs through the 2024 season. Owner Steve Ballmer has said the team will honor it.
Chris Meany, the arena’s project manager, said the Clippers hope to receive help for their project because lawmakers gave relief to the Sacramento Kings in 2013 including shortening court-decision deadlines for lawsuits facing the basketball team’s downtown arena.
The developers, Meany said, still will undergo a full review under CEQA, including writing an environmental impact report, and working with Inglewood residents to improve the project.
“Under this bill, we would remain obligated to work through the complete process and the bill would only fix the timeline for lawsuits that might be filed by our competitors,” Meany said in a statement.
Opponents of the Clippers’ plan include Madison Square Garden Co., which owns Inglewood’s Forum arena. In a statement, the company called the bill a “radical and extreme attempt to undermine California’s environmental protection laws.”
“While this kind of wholesale elimination of community participation is never justified, it is particularly unwarranted in this case, as there is no urgency around the timing of these projects or any risk of losing a major economic engine for the state,” the company’s statement said.
The bill has to pass both houses of the Legislature before lawmakers adjourn for the year on Sept. 15.
Times staff writers Nathan Fenno and David Wharton contributed to this report.