A transit activist claiming that Muni and the planning department violated state laws by approving service cuts without an environmental review was given the "nice argument, but you lose" treatment moments ago by the Board of Supervisors. As a result, Muni is now set to move ahead with 10 percent service cuts commencing May 8.*Predictions of Muni-related ululations
of the sort common at MTA Board meetings showed early promise -- but withered by the time Supervisor David Campos queried a planning department official "What is your reading of that second sentence in that subsection?" When he later quoted liberally from "section 21.08032 of the public resources code" it became clear this was going to become a very complicated debate about state environmental law and not a maniacal display connecting transit service to workers' revolutions worldwide. Or, at least, there was less of that than usual.
Here's a synopsis of the major points, as simple and readable as we can do it:
At issue was the Planning Department's granting of a statutory
exemption to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to Muni, allowing it to forgo an environmental review of
pending service cuts due to the transit agency's state of fiscal
Activist David Pilpel objected on a number of grounds, but the one that
gained the most traction was the lag in time between Muni's April 2009
declaration of fiscal emergency and approval of service cuts in
February of this year. He contended this essentially comprised a new project mandating a new process prior to approving any service cuts. Campos latched onto this argument.
The Planning Department's Bill Wyco and Viktoriya Wise countered that a fiscal emergency declaration lasts for a year -- and it's not practical to outline exactly what steps you'll take at the outset to remedy that emergency. While Campos was puzzled that an agency's financial well-being could fluctuate during that year, and it could still have carte blanche to undertake whatever moves a state of fiscal emergency entitled it to, Wyco noted that this is how the state legislature wrote the law -- and only it can change it. Municipal Transportation Agency chief financial officer Sonali Bose added that, despite recent influxes of state money, the agency still faces heavy deficits. In short, Muni still fits the definition of being in a fiscal state of emergency; its projected revenue falls far short of its projected costs.
Still, the notion of an agency being able to "do anything it wants without justifying its actions" once a state of fiscal emergency has been declared troubled Campos. He moved that Muni either make things right procedurally or undertake the environmental review.
At this point, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd bluntly said that it made no sense for beleagured public transit agencies to be forced to undertake six-to-eight month environmental analyses and spend millions every time dwindling budgets mandated service cuts. Moments later, Board President David Chiu, a progressive, sided with Elsbernd -- a back-breaker for Campos' argument.
"I would love to support the appelant [Pilpel] today, but I do not think that it's appropriate at this time to use CEQA law to do what many of us would like to do. It'd be the easy thing to do," said Chiu. "I think the [state] law is clear and makes sense. It makes sense to allow transit agencies that have budget problems to not have to delay to allow the agencies to fix problems."
Chiu added that using CEQA to stave off Muni service cuts would be as misguided as anti-bicycle zealots using CEQA to delay the city's master bike plan.
In the end, the motion to overturn the process allowing Muni to skirt the environmental review failed, 7-4 (Against: Bevan Dufty, Elsbernd, Chiu, Carmen Chiu, Sophie Maxwell, Michela Alioto-Pier, Ross Mirkarimi. For: Campos, Chris Daly, John Avalos, Eric Mar).
It was a win for intelligent, civilized debate. And what was our prize? Massive, horribly conceived Muni service cuts. Hooray for us. *An earlier version of this story reported the cuts would commence on May 1. They were originally scheduled to do so, the new operative date is May 8.