Wednesday notes: CEQA reform, the return of redevelopment agencies, ACE expansion, and Congressman Denham’s rail issues

In today’s news and notes, SCL looks at CEQA reform, legislation to bring back redevelopment agencies, new ACE developments and Representative Jeff Denham’s decision to take jobs away from his constituents.

California State legislators are tackling CEQA reform and redevelopment agencies

CEQA reform likely to pass

Just two weeks ago, the California state senate overwhelmingly supported legislation for CEQA reform, the state’s environmental protection law that has historically been a major impediment to development. With SB 731 passing the senate 39-0, the Assembly will most likely also pass their version, meaning we should see Jerry Brown sign it into law sometime in the near future, barring a veto.

The legislation is not a complete overhaul, as the bill’s author—Senator Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento—sought bipartisan support and therefore avoided the most contentious CEQA issues. As a result, SB 731 won’t be a game changer for development, but does make some improvements. Bill Fulton in the California Planning and Development Report summed up the changes nicely:

“Perhaps the biggest CEQA change called for in SB 731 is the creation of state significance thresholds for parking, transportation, and noise. The bill would allow local governments to create stricter standards – but one can imagine quick a battle at the Natural Resources Agency and the Office of Planning & Research over whether the state thresholds should be strong or weak. In addition, the bill would ditch aesthetics as a CEQA issue.”

Brown had all but given up on CEQA reform this year, but thanks to the hard work of Senator Steinberg, it looks like we will see modest reform.

Redevelopment agencies returning?

Legislation to bring back redevelopment agencies has cleared the Senate as well. Under the new bill—SB 1—the agencies would be reincarnated as “sustainable communities investment authorities,” providing tax increment financing to fund redevelopment projects in walkable and transit-accessible areas. As you may recall, these agencies were rife with problems in the past, using tax dollars to pay for projects in areas that most would not consider blighted. SB 1, however, includes tighter controls over the use of TIF funds and is more in line with the state’s environmental goals.

Similar legislation was vetoed by Brown last year. However, some see optimism that Brown may have a change of heart this time around, especially since there is widespread support within the Democratic Party to reinstate these agencies. Will Brown strike down redevelopment again? We will have to wait and see.

ACE plans for expansion

As reported by The Record, ACE has unveiled big plans for the future. In a vote taken last week, the California High Speed Rail Authority gave the San Joaquin Regional Rail Authority the reins on developing high speed access to the Bay Area through expanded ACE train service. Eventually, this expanded ACE service will connect with the state’s larger high speed rail network.

In the short term, ACE plans to work on smaller investments such as dining cars and expanded parking at Cabral Station. Over the long haul, ACE expects to expand service to Manteca and Modesto as well as construct a dedicated set of tracks to whiz travelers to and from San Jose in one hour. Currently, trains to San Jose take two hours as ACE trains must share the tracks with freight rail.

This is a nice development for the area as expanded rail service is sorely needed. As demonstrated by ACE’s rising ridership numbers, people are looking for better ways to get to the Bay Area, and hopefully ACE can rise to meet this demand.

Congressman Denham recommends taking jobs away from Central Valley residents.

Congressman Jeff Denham recently rode an ACE train to chat with commuters about rail service. Denham reportedly came away with a greater respect for the role that ACE and rail in general will play in the future of the Central Valley. That’s why it’s peculiar to see the Congressman, who is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on railroads, advocate for shifting $6 billion from the CAHSR project to Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service, serving Washington DC to Boston.

“Given that there are over 11.4 million Amtrak riders and over 200 million commuters that use the Northeast Corridor every year, it would be an investment in an area where we have proven ridership,”

The Northeast Corridor certainly needs the investment, but why not fund both? The federal government can essentially borrow money for free at the moment, so in reality this is not a choice between funding CAHSR and upgrading Amtrak. Moreover, Denham’s position seems at odds with the needs of his constituents. Stanislaus County residents suffer from high unemployment and would benefit from the thousands of jobs created by the construction of CAHSR. Instead, Denham wants those jobs to go to people on the east coast.

But don’t fret too much. Even though Denham doesn’t want to create jobs in the valley, he is hard at work to make sure you can bring your dog on a train!

Bob Deis to retire

I would be remiss if I did not mention the big announcement from last night’s council meeting where City Manager Bob Deis announced his departure effective this coming November. Obviously this is a huge development in Stockton for obvious reasons. I am sure more will come of this announcement in the coming days.

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Categories: Community Commentary, Transportation

Author:David A. Garcia

David A. Garcia founded SCL in March of 2012. He holds degrees from UCLA as well as Johns Hopkins University and currently works as the Chief Operating Officer at Ten Space in Downtown Stockton, and previously worked as a researcher/analyst for a congressional agency in Washington DC. The views expressed here are solely of the author.

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