After over a year of delay, the city of Los Angeles’s new bus shelter program has yet to install a single new bus shelter. 

In September 2022, the LA City Council approved a new contract to build 3,000 new shelters and 450 new shade structures. Now, according to sources familiar with the contract, the city is putting the brakes on new shelters until several CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) lawsuits are resolved. New shelters could be pushed to June. The delay is yet another snag in LA’s decades-long struggle to provide basic amenities for bus riders, the majority of whom are low-income and people of color.

“This means that — again — the promises to bus riders are not being kept,” said Eli Lipmen, executive director of Move LA, a non-profit that advocated for the new contract (Tranzito is an annual sponsor for the organization).

The Sidewalk and Transit Amenities Program (STAP) officially started in January of last year with a new contractor, Tranzito-Vector, after the previous 21-year contract failed to build the promised number of shelters. However, Mayor Karen Bass failed to fast-track the $30 million public works trust fund loan required to begin fabrication, and no new shelters were installed throughout the entirety of 2023.

In November, Mayor Bass and other city officials announced the $30 million loan and additional funding for bus shelters, street trees, shade structures, and cool pavement. According to StreetsLA, the agency that manages the program, the first shelters were supposed to be installed in January.

Now, if the city does install new shelters, it could be forced to remove them until an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) has been completed — a process that could take a year or more.

StreetsLA did not answer a detailed list of questions about the delay or provide any information on when new bus shelters will be installed. LA Public Press also reached out to Mayor Bass about the delay but did not receive comment in time for publication. 

What’s the hold-up?

At least two CEQA lawsuits have been filed against the city of LA to stop the bus shelter program from moving forward. One group, Citizens for a Better Los Angeles, filed a CEQA lawsuit primarily because of privacy concerns with STAP, according to Casey Maddren, treasurer and secretary for the organization.

According to their website, Citizens for a Better Los Angeles focuses on three projects: regulating billboards and street furniture advertisements, limiting the approval of liquor permits, and reducing noise from road traffic, construction, emergency vehicles, and nightclubs. 

“If you talk to Tranzito-Vector,  they say, ‘No, no, no, we would never collect data from people,’ but we don’t trust them,” said Maddren. “Because that’s really what makes digital outdoor advertising so valuable is the data collected.” 

Maddren clarified in an email that the lawsuit leads with CEQA issues because the organization’s lawyers specialize in environmental law.

This isn’t unusual, says Jacob Wasserman, research program manager at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. Transportation projects like new rail lines are often delayed by CEQA lawsuits brought by concerned citizens, dragging out project timelines and increasing construction costs.

First passed in 1970, CEQA requires public agencies to study the environmental impact of any discretionary project. While on the surface, this seems like a good idea, according to Wasserman, opponents to housing and transportation projects have leveraged CEQA for their own ends — some of which have nothing to do with environmental impacts.

If a plaintiff wins a CEQA lawsuit, the defendant is required to pay their legal fees.

“It is often done by the vocal minority of people who don’t want a project — a housing development or a transit line. And I think it’s complicated.”

He notes that CEQA lawsuits are one of the only ways for residents to challenge gentrification and displacement in their neighborhoods. Sometimes, the goal isn’t to stop the project, but to force the developer to come to the table to negotiate a community benefits agreement.

CEQA has also been used to delay affordable housing projects, despite recent promises from Bass and the LA Planning Department that new projects would be exempt from most of environmental review. 

Even so, not all projects are subject to CEQA. SOFI Stadium in Inglewood, for example, was exempt due to a loophole in the law. 

In the case of new transit infrastructure, the California state legislature has worked to pass legislation that would exempt transit projects like bus lanes and bike lanes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If CEQA lawsuits are business as usual for new transit infrastructure in LA, the delay is still costing the city money — dollars that would be reinvested right back into building more shelters. Starting July 2024, bus shelter advertising revenue will go into the RAISE LA fund that the LA City Council passed last year. 

In general, according to Wasserman, the city of LA has taken a conservative approach to CEQA challenges, waiting for lawsuits to be resolved before building new infrastructure. The next hearing date is set for May 15. 

“They freeze these projects,” said Lipmen. “Which just means that people don’t get the necessary infrastructure that we’ve been asking for for years.”

The city submitted a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) for the bus shelter program, a document that typically tries to demonstrate that the environmental impacts are minimal or could be reduced significantly with mitigation. The lawsuit from Citizens for a Better Los Angeles argues that the MND does not address all the potential environmental impacts of STAP.

This is the paradox of CEQA, says Wasserman: Single-family homes far from the city center are exempt from CEQA review, even though they increase greenhouse gas emissions by requiring people to drive more.

“But then a new transit line like the Sepulveda Transit Corridor… that would instantly become one of the, if not the most popular routes in LA and the West Coast [and] take lots of people off the road — that requires extensive environmental review.”

Maylin Tu is a freelance writer covering transportation, mobility and equity in Los Angeles.

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