It’s a rare thing when groups that normally don’t agree on much of anything come together to agree on one thing. And that’s mostly the situation for Monterey-Salinas Transit and its proposed Highway 1 bus rapid transit lane, aimed at getting more people out of their personal vehicles and onto public transit.
“Not only is LandWatch on board, but the Monterey County Hospitality Association is on board. Not only is CHISPA on board, but the Monterey Peninsula and Salinas Valley chambers of commerce are on board,” says Carl Sedoryk, MST’s CEO and general manager. “Taxpayer watchdogs like Kevin Dayton, who is an advocate to make sure public resources are not wasted, are on board.”
There’s one organization, though, that’s not on board: Keep Fort Ord Wild, an open-lands advocacy group which hounded the ill-advised Monterey Downs project, brought forth by a developer who theorized that former Fort Ord lands now in possession of Seaside would make a great place for a horse racing track and related hotels and restaurants, to its inevitable death.
And KFOW is really not on board with MST’s plans to develop a dedicated lane, called the SURF! busway, along six miles of Highway 1 between the cities of Marina and Seaside.
KFOW, along with the group The Open Monterey Project, has decided to litigate it.
In a petition filed July 8 in Monterey County Superior Court by attorney Molly Erickson, the groups have invoked the wildly cumbersome California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, and want a judge to order MST to do a full environmental impact report, rather than the simpler mitigated negative declaration the agency issued in March.
Speaking of cumbersome, here’s why MST believes the declaration is what the project required, rather than a full EIR.
In February 2019, State Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, introduced SB 288 to expand CEQA exemptions to speed up sustainable transportation projects, like the proposed bus line. MST’s board approved the less onerous declaration on the premise that SB 288 allowed it.
“[The law] is there for us to use in greenhouse gas-removing projects that help transit access for disadvantaged communities to move forward faster,” Sedoryk says. “Sen. Wiener says SURF is the exact project he had in mind when he wrote the legislation.”
Will there be environmental impacts from this project? Absolutely. Is MST prepared to mitigate them? Absolutely.
Per the lawsuit, though, those mitigation plans aren’t enough. The proposed bus route would pave 22 acres of dunes, adversely impact views, harm existing recreational and commuter uses along the Rec Trail and harm biological resources as well.
Erickson says MST’s ridership surveys don’t show exactly how many cars the line might take off the road, but at a fixed route that only runs from Marina to Tioga Avenue, with only one stop, the project might not be worth the cost to either taxpayers or the environment. Further, MST planned on doing a full EIR, then changed course at the last minute.
“KFOW and Open Monterey are fully supportive of reducing greenhouse gases and projects that protect the environment,” Erickson says, “but the SURF project has no guarantee and no likelihood of reducing impacts because of existing low ridership and because MST has no idea what it would take to get drivers out of their cars and onto a bus for that stretch of road.” (It is a stretch of road that regularly backs up with terrible car traffic.)
As this issue of the paper goes to print, there’s a wildfire so large raging through Oregon that it’s created its own weather system. Hundreds in Europe and Asia have been killed by flooding in recent weeks. When news arrived that the Monterey Bay region should brace for dry lightning last weekend, the newsroom gave a collective shudder.
I asked one local environmentalist if they had any problems with the MST project, and this was the response: “Yes,” they said. “That it wasn’t done 20 years ago.”
Sedoryk and Erickson say an in-person meeting is planned in the next week. If that fails to bear fruit, the case will have a first hearing in November.
Meanwhile, the climate crisis is getting worse.