Less than one week remains to comment on important proposed changes to the CEQA Guidelines that flow from the 2013 adoption of “SB 743.” Once phased in, these Guidelines will change the evaluation of a project’s potential transportation impacts and, if the Guidelines function as the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) desires, alter the pattern of California land development. Under the Guidelines, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) will replace level of service (LOS) as the standard a lead agency must measure a project’s traffic impacts. Under the new metric, what was mitigation for traffic impacts, such as the widening of roads, will soon be considered a significant impact. Accordingly, the implications of these Guidelines go beyond the need for traffic engineers to retool their traffic models (itself a complex task).
Of course changing CEQA is bound to be controversial. OPR’s first Guideline proposal generated numerous and diverse comments, reflecting differences among California’s lead agencies’ size and access to transit, and stakeholders’ individual (often ideological) views on transportation. As a result, OPR issued a second set of proposed Guidelines on January 20, 2016, which can be viewed on OPR’s website. Comments on this latest draft must be submitted to CEQA.Guidelines@resources.ca.gov by 5:00pm on February 29, 2016.
Practical Implications of the New Guidelines
OPR proposes to revise Appendix G, which is the heart of the proposed Guidelines. Although Appendix G is provided for guidance only, agencies typically follow it almost to the letter. As proposed, the transportation significance thresholds in Appendix G would eliminate questions related to LOS and instead focus on VMTs, including whether a project would induce additional automobile travel by increasing physical roadway capacity. In addition, OPR proposes technical guidance, to be published as a separate document, to help lead agencies implement the new Guidelines. This technical guidance includes recommended quantitative thresholds and analysis methods for determining the transportation impacts from various types of projects, including residential, retail, office, and roadway development. Following are some of the practical consequences that we foresee resulting from the proposed changes:
- A Greenhouse Gas Consultant Will Strongly Influence the Transportation Analysis: Replacing LOS with VMT requires estimating the volume of greenhouse gases produced by a car while traveling. That VMT analysis is not new. To evaluate potential air quality and GHG impacts, GHG consultants have long used VMT to determine GHG and other emissions attributable to vehicles associated with a proposed project. Now, that same VMT analysis of GHG emissions will be used to determine a project’s traffic impacts.
- Mitigation Measures Will Change: Neither the proposed Guidelines nor OPR’s Technical Advisory establishes specific thresholds of significance for VMT. OPR’s technical guidance, however, “finds” that a fifteen percent reduction in VMT when compared to existing development “may be a reasonable threshold.” Use of this suggested criterion means, for example, that the users of a new office building must collectively drive fifteen percent fewer miles than the users of the office building next door that was built two years ago. If not, the project will either need to find ways to mitigate its VMT impacts or be deemed to have a significant impact on the environment. Mitigation to decrease miles traveled might include measures such as adding a transportation demand program, making a residential project mixed-use, and offering bicycle storage, measures now often associated with reducing GHG emissions.
- General Plan Consistency: A possible unintended consequence of the new Guidelines is seen in the context of general plan consistency. Many General Plans, particularly in less urban areas, have an LOS policy to assure the free flow of traffic through their communities. Putting CEQA aside, the approval of any development project requires a finding of consistency with the applicable general plan. An EIR’s Statement of Overriding Considerations cannot override a failure to make that finding. Even though CEQA’s Guidelines require the discussion of general plan inconsistency within the “Environmental Setting” discussion, many EIR consultants and local agencies evaluate general plan consistency as part of a land use impact analysis. Thus, for agencies with LOS mandates in their general plans, an LOS traffic analysis is likely to be included in their CEQA documents. In those instances, we anticipate a need to reconcile the inclusion of road improvements to meet general plan requirements with the proposed Appendix G’s negative view of “increasing physical roadway capacity in congested areas.”
We encourage you to learn more about how the proposed Guidelines may impact your communities and your projects.