Analysis of New Framework for Transportation Impact Under CEQA

September 16, 2014

ENR California

Viewpoint: Analysis of New Framework for Transportation Impact Under CEQA

On August 6, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) released a preliminary discussion draft of amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Guidelines that would dramatically alter the evaluation of transportation impacts under CEQA. The proposed Guidelines would shift the focus from avoiding congestion to curtailing sprawl, by moving away from “level of service” (LOS) analysis. This will impose new and potentially challenging requirements on developers and state and local public agencies.

Currently, LOS is the most common metric used in evaluating the significance of a project’s transportation impacts under CEQA.  LOS measures the delay that vehicles experience at intersections and on roadway segments – i.e., congestion. According to OPR, focusing on a project’s impact on vehicle delay provides an incomplete assessment of potential transportation impacts.  This may result in undesirable consequences, including the imposition of mitigation measures – such as increased roadway capacity – that could make traffic and air quality worse over the long term.

OPR’s proposed overhaul of the LOS-centric transportation framework arises out of SB 743, a law passed in 2013. It required OPR to establish new criteria for determining the significance of transportation impacts of projects located within “transit priority areas.” The criteria must promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks, and a diversity of land uses.

Although the focus of SB 743’s mandate was on projects in transit priority areas, the law provided that OPR may adopt guidelines establishing alternative metrics for evaluating transportation impacts outside of transit priority areas. In fact, OPR has proposed sweeping changes to the Guidelines that would ultimately impact all projects in California.  OPR’s newly proposed Guidelines Section 15064.3 identifies “vehicle miles traveled” – the distance of automobile travel associated with a project – as the favored metric for evaluating a project’s transportation impacts, and states that a project’s effect on automobile delay – i.e., LOS impact – will no longer constitute a significant environmental impact under CEQA.  It also identifies several factors that a lead agency may consider in evaluating transportation-related impacts on local safety, including those relating to bicyclists and pedestrians, queuing on freeway off-ramps, speed differentials between adjacent travel lanes, and increased motor vehicle speeds.

This new approach would be phased in, but would eventually apply to all projects statewide. Upon adoption, the proposed changes would apply immediately (prospectively) to the analysis of projects located within one-half mile of “major transit stops” or “high-quality transit corridors.”  A “major transit stop” is a rail transit station, a ferry terminal served by bus or rail transit service, or the intersection of two or more major bus routes that meet certain criteria. A “high-quality transit corridor” is one with a fixed-route bus service with service intervals no longer than 15 minutes during peak commute hours. For other areas, local governments may choose to be governed by the new provisions if they update their CEQA procedures to conform to the new Section 15064.3. After January 1, 2016, the new Guidelines section would apply statewide.

Because the proposed changes emphasize “vehicle miles traveled” rather than LOS, the new framework may favor certain projects, both in terms of location and type. For example, according to the proposed Guideline, “development projects that locate within one-half mile of either an existing major transit stop or a stop along an existing high quality transit corridor generally may be considered to have less than a significant transportation impact.” Similarly, a new grocery store or movie theater may result in a net reduction in vehicle miles traveled by providing local residents with a closer option for groceries or movies, while other types of commercial development might attract drivers from greater distances, thereby resulting in a net increase in vehicle miles traveled.

However, despite the focus on vehicle miles traveled, the proposed revisions to the CEQA Guidelines would not completely eliminate LOS from the CEQA equation. A project would still need to comply with any relevant state and local plans – for example general plans, local zoning, and fee programs – that require LOS-based standards to be met. Conflicts between a project and those plans might be considered a potentially significant impact under CEQA even if the LOS-related impact is no longer, in and of itself, deemed significant.

In addition, under the proposed Guidelines, to the extent a “transportation project” increases roadway capacity in a congested area or adds a new roadway to a network, the transportation analysis must evaluate whether the project would result in potentially significant impacts arising from the “induce[ment]” of additional automobile travel.  Therefore, implementation of measures aimed at alleviating congestion could themselves result in potentially significant impacts under CEQA.

OPR expects that the proposed revisions to the Guidelines will be modified significantly in response to public input. Comments and suggestions on the draft are due to OPR before October 10, 2014 at 5:00 p.m. The preliminary discussion draft and instructions for submitting comments and suggestions are available on OPR’s website.