The California Environmental Quality Act was established to protect the environment and ensure that development does the same. So how is it that a project to build hundreds of “green” public transit rail cars in Palmdale was killed by a CEQA lawsuit that has nothing to do with the environment?
The time is long past due to reform CEQA to preserve the law’s original intent, while stamping out these types of abuses that eliminate jobs our region desperately needs.
Kinkisharyo International LLC is set to build hundreds of environmentally friendly rail cars for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but it recently pulled the plug on the $50 million, 400,000-square-foot permanent manufacturing facility planned for the city of Palmdale that would have employed more than 250 manufacturing workers in this economically depressed area.
According to news reports, groups trying to force the rail car manufacturer to unionize its workforce filed a CEQA lawsuit in an attempt to coerce the company to give in to its demands. Fearing the uncertainty and delays from the CEQA litigation, Kinkisharyo decided to look to another state for its manufacturing facility.
Unions serve an important purpose and provide great value to workers, but we think everyone can agree that this is a wholly inappropriate use of CEQA, a law adopted to protect environmental resources and public health.
This flagrant abuse of CEQA couldn’t come at a worse time. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the city of Palmdale has an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent (as of September). In neighboring cities such as Lancaster, unemployment is 11.1 percent — far greater than the statewide average of 7.3 percent.
The region, too, is suffering worse than it has in years. According to a recent Southern California Association of Governments study, the share of residents in the six-county SCAG region living below the federal poverty level increased from 13 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2012. Today, the region has 3.2 million residents in poverty, including one in four children. We must do something to address this crisis.
Instead, abuses of CEQA are taking us backward.
The rail car project would have brought hundreds of middle-class jobs to the region, all while promoting environmentally friendly public transit that will help get people get out of their cars and meet California’s emission-reduction goals. SCAG’s most recent Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy places heavy emphasis on public transit, including rail, and as we begin work on our updated RTP/SCS, we’re keenly aware of the value of projects that support that goal.
Sadly, what we’ve seen in Palmdale is all too common — CEQA used as a blunt tool to strong-arm economic concessions out of a developer or to stop projects for non-environmental reasons. Throughout the state, CEQA lawsuits have gridlocked affordable housing, schools, renewable energy projects, hospitals and many other local environmentally desirable projects we need.
Lawmakers must take a serious look at CEQA to preserve the law’s original intent while stopping clear abuses of the law.
Achieving these goals will not be easy, but with participation from diverse stakeholders and commitment from Gov. Brown and legislators on both sides of the aisle, meaningful CEQA reform can and should be accomplished this year.
We urge legislators to make this a top priority for 2015.
William Allen is president and CEO of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. Hasan Ikhrata is executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments.