Frustration over new Bicycle Plan delays prompts talk of a ballot measure
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Environmental studies on the San Francisco Bicycle Plan have been delayed for almost a year, pushing back the city's earliest opportunity to lift a court-imposed injunction against improvements to the system covering everything mentioned in the plan, from new bike lanes to simple sidewalk racks to summer 2009.
Bicycle advocates and some members of the Board of Supervisors are calling the bureaucratic delays unacceptable, and they're actively exploring ways to speed things up. Frustrations are running so high that some activists are now talking about taking the plan directly to voters, noting that initiatives are generally exempt from the strictures of the California Environmental Quality Act, under which the bike plan was successfully challenged last year by antibike activist and blogger Rob Anderson.
"We're looking at creative strategies to make this move, because the plan the city has now is unacceptable," Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told the Guardian.
Shahum wouldn't specifically address the idea of an initiative, which was a hot topic among transportation activists at the monthly Car Free Happy Hour on Dec. 5, but sources say it's being given serious consideration. One proposal would wrap the bike plan into an omnibus climate change ballot measure promoting alternatives to the automobile.
Earlier this year staffers at the Metropolitan Transportation Agency and other city agencies involved with the bike plan said the draft environmental impact report would be ready by next month (see "Stationary Biking," 5/16/07), but in recent weeks they've pushed that target back to September 2008. They've also extended the time for follow-up work after the DEIR is complete, now projecting final EIR adoption in late spring 2009 rather than June 2008, as originally envisioned.
When the MTA board was asked to approve the delay Dec. 4, the members were presented with a staff report indicating the "original" estimate for the DEIR was June 2008, "a shift of three months," as MTA spokesperson Kristen Holland also emphasized in an e-mail responding to questions from the Guardian.
But in reality, the target date has been pushed steadily backward by staff at regular intervals throughout the year. When consultant Wilbur Smith Associates began work in May and a public scoping meeting was held, the January DEIR deadline (which had already quietly been moved back to Feb. 1) was moved to June 7. Then to July. And now to September or perhaps even mid-October 2008, as the consultant's Dec. 3 timeline showed.
"The mayor did not seek to slow it down. What in fact happened is that much to our disappointment several city departments told us that our aggressive June 2008 goal could not be met chiefly due to the EIR's expanded scope," Nathan Ballard, press secretary for Mayor Gavin Newsom, told the Guardian.
After the final EIR is approved in 2009 and the Bike Plan is readopted by the Board of Supervisors, to lift the injunction city attorneys must return to Superior Court Judge Peter Busch (who ruled last year that the plan's original EIR didn't comply with CEQA), persuade him to lift the injunction, and hope that Anderson attorney Mary Miles (who is asking the city to pay almost $1 million in legal fees to which Busch says she's entitled, although the city is contesting the amount) can't force more delays.
"At this rate the City will be prohibited from making bicycle route and parking improvements until at least mid-2009, and it's quite likely that the City won't be back to striping bike lanes until sometime in 2010. Four years of zero bike lanes, four years of zero bike racks, an entire San Francisco mayor's term," SFBC program director Andy Thornley wrote in a Nov. 27 letter to Newsom on behalf of the SFBC calling on the mayor to help accelerate the schedule.
Ballard said Newsom is trying: "Our office has asked the departments to identify both opportunities to expedite certain phases of the project and additional impediments to meeting the current timeframe."
Sup. Bevan Dufty, who chairs the Transportation Authority's Plans and Programs Committee, is also pushing for a faster turnaround. He brokered and attended a Dec. 7 meeting involving Shahum and Planning Director Dean Macris.
"I think [Macris] had some excellent ideas about bringing on some consulting staff to help work through the process.... I think in another week we'll have some solid announcements," Dufty told the Guardian after the meeting. "He felt the department could do more and do better."
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who is talking with activists about a possible ballot measure, also expressed frustration, blaming "antibike forces in the Newsom administration" and pledging to keep the pressure on. He told us, "There's no reasonable justification that would delay this into 2009."
But project staffers say their work is both complicated and unprecedented. "No one has ever done an environmental review quite like this," Oliver Gajda, bicycle program manager for the MTA, told the Guardian. "It's a fairly complex document that no city has done."
That's because San Francisco's bicycle plan is the first to be successfully challenged under CEQA. Gajda said the latest delays stem from expansion of the work scope and from in coordinating with various neighborhood plans in the city and with other agencies like the port and redevelopment districts.
"We're trying to capture everything we can foresee in the entire city," Gajda said. "We are trying to make this the most solid environmental document possible."
That's understandable from the perspective of planners whose initial stab at the plan was rejected by the courts, but activists say four years is too long to wait for improvements to a bicycle system that has seen a 12 percent increase in the number of bicyclists on San Francisco streets in the past year, according to an MTA study.
"The fact that this critical project has drifted so far off track in a green city indicates a disappointing lack of commitment from city agencies and no strong hand to guide the Bike Plan forward in a timely fashion," Thornley said. "It's time for real action and a real commitment from the city to get this work done so we can return to putting real bicycle improvements on the streets of San Francisco."