The California Environmental Quality Act is a valuable protector of this state's resources. It guides planning by forcing agencies to consider the environmental implications of proposed projects. CEQA is also a woefully blunt instrument that thwarts economic growth and, perversely, can actually harm the environment. That's exactly what's happening with a proposed switching yard at the Port of Los Angeles.
The railway company BNSF has spent more than a decade working with the port to design a yard close to the port where trucks could deposit containers from ships onto the rail network. The new yard, called the Southern California International Gateway, would mean reduced traffic and air pollution in the region. Still some neighbors and environmental groups filed suit under CEQA to challenge the project's environmental impact report.
Late last month, Superior Court Judge Barry Goode reviewed the report and concluded that it came up short in a few areas. In Goode's opinion, the EIR was an "impressive piece of work," but it did not adequately consider the port's potential growth or the yard's implications for another nearby facility. He also found that it overlooked some potential noise and traffic impacts.
That may be true. BNSF disagrees, but these are difficult projections to make, and Goode's 200-page ruling is detailed and comprehensive.
What's indisputable is that the project has been excruciatingly studied. In the 11 years since it was introduced, the switching yard proposal has been the subject of public hearings and press scrutiny. It's been reviewed and approved by the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners and the City Council. The EIR runs more than 5,000 pages. "It is clear," Goode wrote in his decision, "that a great deal of careful thought has been given to the environmental impact of this project."
If that's not enough, what is?
CEQA exists to protect the environment, and Goode's blocking the BNSF project may indeed have a beneficial impact on the area next to the proposed rail yard. It will be less noisy, and have less traffic than if the yard were built.
But we're not talking about pristine wilderness here; the yard is planned for an industrial site adjacent to a freeway. The nearest homes are across the freeway; the immediate neighbors are a tank farm and an industrial operations area. With or without the switching yard, this is a noisy, congested, polluted spot.
In fact, Goodes' ruling will have a negative effect on the region's environment, if not the neighborhood's. Today, many trucks that pick up cargo at the port trundle their loads 24 miles up the 710 freeway to deposit them at a rail station. If the switching yard were built, those trucks would instead travel less than four miles. BNSF estimates the new yard would eliminate 1.5 million truck trips a year up and down the freeway. And since those trips cause traffic and air pollution, the project would reduce both.
That's one of the troubles with CEQA: The judge is not empowered to consider the overall implications for the environment; he has to examine the micro implications raised in the lawsuit.
And then there's L.A.'s economy. BNSF says it would take 1,500 construction workers to build the facility. Once operating, again according to BNSF, the yard would spur enough economic growth to add 22,000 direct and indirect jobs to the region — ranging from the people actually running the 24-hour-a-day facility to those involved in goods movement across Southern California. Even if the company is being overly optimistic, the new yard is likely to produce thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue to the local, state and federal governments.
Finally, there is the issue of uncertainty. BNSF has been pursuing this project since 2005. It has invested millions of dollars in environmental review and planning, to now be sent back to the drawing board. Imagine if you were considering an addition to your home and were told it would take a fortune and more than a decade just to determine whether you would be allowed to build it. Would you go forward?
The homeowners and environmental groups that fought the switching yard had every right to do so, but the BNSF case is a powerful reminder that CEQA, for all its protective qualities, can work against the public interest as well as for it.
There is no reason CEQA's potential for abuse couldn't be mitigated. However, since it was enacted in 1970, the act has accumulated powerful allies. Unions use it to leverage concessions from developers; businesses employ it to hamper competitors; neighborhoods use it to fend off undesirable development; lawyers bill for years on end by picking through impact reports and finding weak spots. Those are powerful constituencies, and all of them resist change.
Fortunately for California, we have a governor who no longer is subject to many of the rules of political pressure. Jerry Brown, now in his fourth and final term and at the peak of his influence, has the capacity and freedom to take on CEQA reform. It would be a challenge worthy of his ability.
As for the BNSF yard, a spokeswoman this week said the company was "considering all of its options," but they're not as environmentally protective as the yard.
Jim Newton, a former editor and columnist for The Times, is the editor of UCLA's Blueprint magazine.