In Patterson, Newsom rolls out plan to fast-track infrastructure projects in California

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed an executive order laying the groundwork for a bold plan to expedite transportation, water, clean energy and other major infrastructure projects across California.

“This is about addressing the issues of our time,” Newsom said during a briefing at the site of a future solar farm in Stanislaus County. “We’re here to assert ourselves a different paradigm, to commit ourselves to results and prove that we can actually do more with taxpayer money.”

Newsom’s plan — made up of 11 budget trailer bills and an executive order — comes amid an influx of federal funding for infrastructure projects. California is also poised to spend as much as $180 billion on new infrastructure over the next decade, Newsom said.

The governor wants to make sure delays associated with permitting and the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, don’t get in the way.

CEQA was signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1970 as a way to protect natural resources and the environment from negative consequences of development. But, over time, critics have blamed the law for bogging down long-sought housing, transportation and energy projects.

The governor’s plan does not make substantial changes to the statute but aims to prevent projects from being dragged out during lengthy legal and permitting processes. It would broaden similar procedures in California that helped to substantially fast-track the completion of major NBA stadiums like Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center and San Francisco’s Chase Center.

“I love sports,” Newsom said. “But I also love roads. I love transit. I love bridges. And I love clean energy projects like the one we’re seeing here.”

Some of the projects that could benefit from the governor’s proposal include transit construction, bridge maintenance, Sites Reservoir and the Delta Conveyance Project — the state’s solution for repairing its aging water delivery system from the north.

Newsom’s plan to speed up infrastructure projects

The proposal would prevent lawsuits involving certain climate and transportation projects from lasting more than nine months. And ultimately, Newsom said, he hopes to reduce that time span to just six months.

The bills also include several tweaks to CEQA to streamline procedures around record retention and accelerate permitting for such projects, Newsom said.

Through an executive order, Newsom instructed a slew of public agencies to stand up a strike team tasked with working on a plan to accelerate clean infrastructure projects across the state.

The governor wants to incorporate the package of legislation into the next year’s budget. The Legislature has until June 15 to pass the budget, and the governor must sign budget-related bills before July 1.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, middle, tours a battery storage facility at the Proxima Solar Farm under construction outside Patterson, Calif., Friday, May 19, 2023. Newsom on Friday signed an executive order laying the groundwork for a bold plan to expedite major transportation, water, clean energy and other infrastructure projects across California.

Newsom unveiled his plan by standing in front of dozens of laborers at the future site of Proxima Solar Farm near Patterson. The project, which is expected to be up and running by the end of the year, could power up to 60,000 homes and generate hundreds of megawatts of clean energy and battery energy storage.

Also in attendance was former Los Angeles mayor and California infrastructure adviser Antonio Villaraigosa, who said he had been working with the governor’s team on this effort since becoming an adviser in August.

“Our legislative partners have to review this, but I think almost everybody agrees: You put a man or a woman back to work and in good middle-class jobs, you change a life,” Villaraigosa said.

Newsom’s plan quickly garnered support across the aisle.

Senate Minority Leader Brian W. Jones, R-San Diego, and Senate Minority Caucus Chair Janet Nguyen, R-Huntington Beach, said in statements that they were both eager to work with the governor to reform CEQA.

“California Senate Republicans have been advocating for CEQA reform for years,” Jones said in a statement. “... We remain eager to collaborate with the governor and our colleagues across the aisle in a bipartisan manner to fix California with solutions that address our state’s myriad issues ranging from homelessness to housing to water infrastructure.”

What about CEQA reform to ease California’s housing crisis?

Absent from Newsom’s announcement were any major changes to address concerns that CEQA is being used by some California homeowners and anti-housing NIMBYs — a term that stands for “Not in my backyard” — to legally challenge and delay housing projects they oppose.

After a Feb. 24 state court ruled that UC Berkeley violated CEQA in its plans to build a new student and homeless housing project, Newsom said the law was being “held hostage by NIMBYs” and vowed to work with lawmakers to change it. He has not elaborated since then.

On Thursday, Newsom changed his tune, saying the state had made “tremendous progress in this space.” He celebrated some of the more modest CEQA overhaul bills that he signed last year and said he was looking forward to signing other bills introduced this year by lawmakers to ease the housing crisis.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks with union electricians after an infrastructure announcement at Proxima Solar Farm outside Patterson, Calif., Friday, May 19, 2023. Newsom on Friday signed an executive order laying the groundwork for a bold plan to expedite major transportation, water, clean energy and other infrastructure projects across California.