The evolution of CEQA traffic impacts analysis from level of service (LOS) methodology to a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) analysis continues apace. The latest step in this revolutionary paradigm shift was the January 20, 2016 release by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) of its “Revised Proposal on Updates to the CEQA Guidelines on Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA” (the “Revised Proposal”).

OPR’s Revised Proposal follows its August 2014 preliminary discussion draft, which followed its December 2013 preliminary evaluation of alternative transportation analysis methods, which followed the Legislature’s enactment of SB 743 (Steinberg) earlier in 2013. SB 743 directed OPR to update the CEQA Guidelines to establish new transportation impact analysis criteria for projects within transit priority areas to promote GHG emissions reduction, multimodal transportation networks, and desired infill projects, while replacing the traditional LOS analysis, which measures a project’s traffic impacts in terms of roadway congestion and automobile delay.

Due to significant changes from its prior draft, OPR has invited further public comment on its 56-page Revised Proposal (which includes a relatively brief proposed Guidelines § 15064.3, and revisions to Appendix G, followed by a lengthy “Technical Advisory on Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA”) until close of business on February 29, 2016. Following public comment and any revisions OPR deems appropriate, it will submit the draft proposal to the Natural Resources Agency for commencement of a formal rulemaking process.

While the Revised Proposal warrants a complete and careful review by CEQA practitioners, significant highlights and interesting aspects include:

  • “OPR continues to recommend [VMT] as the most appropriate measure of project transportation impacts. [The] proposal continues to recommend that development proposed near transit, as well as roadway rehabilitation, transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects, should be considered to have a less than significant transportation impact.” (Revised Proposal, at p. I:2.)
  • “OPR continues to recommend application of [VMT analysis] across the state [, and not just in transit priority areas].” (Ibid.)
  • “OPR continues to recommend that implementation be phased in over time. [¶] …. OPR now recommends that the new [mandatory VMT analysis] procedures remain optional for a two-year period. This opt-in period will enable those agencies that are ready to make the switch from level of service to vehicle miles traveled to do so, but gives times to other agencies that have indicated that they need more time to become acquainted with the new procedures.” (Ibid; see also id. at p. II:8 [proposed Guidelines § 15064.3(c).].)
  • Proposed new CEQA Guidelines § 15064.3(a) provides in part that: “Generally, vehicle miles traveled is the most appropriate measure of a project’s potential transportation impacts.… Other relevant considerations may include the effects of the project on transit and non-motorized travel and the safety of all travelers. A project’s effect on automobile delay does not constitute a significant environmental impact.” (Id. at p. II:7, emph. added.)
  • As is the case with CEQA analysis in other impact areas, “[l]ead agencies may use thresholds of significance for [VMT] recommended by other public agencies or experts provided the threshold is supported by substantial evidence.… A development project that results in [VMT] exceeding an applicable threshold of significance may indicate a significant impact.” (Id. at p. II:7, quoting from proposed new Guidelines § 15064.3(b)(1).)
  • Also consistent with CEQA’s usual rules, where “existing models or methods are not available to estimate” a particular project’s VMT, “a lead agency may analyze the project’s [VMT] qualitatively.” (Id. at p. II:7, quoting from proposed Guidelines § 15064.3(b)(3).) Further, “[f]or many projects, a qualitative analysis of construction traffic may be appropriate.” (Ibid.) However, OPR also indicates in discussing what is “reasonably feasible” that “the California Statewide Travel Demand Model provides data on vehicle miles traveled throughout the state which can be used both for setting thresholds and for estimating VMT resulting from a proposed project.” (Id. at p. I:3.)
  • While not appearing in proposed new Guidelines § 15064.3, OPR’s lengthy Technical Advisory sets forth recommended VMT screening thresholds and thresholds of significance for various types of land use development projects. “Absent substantial evidence” to the contrary, small “projects that generate fewer trips than the threshold for studying consistency with a congestion management program, or 100 vehicle trips per day, generally may be assumed to cause a less than significant transportation impact.” (Id. at p. III:21.) Further, absent factors that might rebut the presumption (such as lack of sufficient density, excessive parking, and inconsistency with the applicable Sustainable Communities Strategy), “[l]ead agencies should generally presume that residential, retail, and office projects, as well as mixed use projects which are a mix of these uses, proposed within 1/2 mile of an existing stop along a high quality transit corridor will have a less than significant impact on VMT.” (Id. at p. III:22.)
  • Based on SB 743’s direction that criteria for determining the significance of projects’ transportation impacts must promote GHG emissions reductions, multimodal transportation networks, and a diversity of land uses (Pub. Resources Code, § 21099), and various state policies (established by AB 32, SB 375, and several executive orders) establishing GHG emissions reduction targets, OPR’s Technical Advisory derives recommended numeric thresholds of significance for residential, office and retail projects. (Id. at pp. III:18-III:25.) For residential projects, OPR recommends a threshold of significance of existingCity household VMT per capita minus 15% and existing regional household VMT per capitaminus 15%; if a project’s household VMT per capita would exceed both of these thresholds, a significant transportation impact would be indicated. Conversely, if the project would generate a per capita VMT that is below either of these thresholds, it would be considered to have a less than significant transportation impact. (Id. at pp. III:22-III:23.)
  • For office projects, OPR recommends a significance threshold of 15% below existing VMT per employee for the relevant geographic area (i.e., region or county). (Id. at p. III:23.)
  • For retail projects, which typically redistribute existing shopping trips rather than create new trips, OPR’s recommended threshold of significance is any net increase in total VMT in the area affected by the project. (Mixed use projects should be analyzed component-by-component, and projects may receive credit for “internal capture.”) (Id. at pp. III:23-III:24.)
  • For projects consisting of the adoption of land use plans OPR recommends consistency with the relevant Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy as the relevant threshold, with thresholds for plans in non-MPO areas to be determined on a case-by-case basis. (Id. at p. III:25.)
  • Regarding transportation projects, proposed Guidelines § 15064.3(b)(2) would provide in pertinent part: “Additional lane miles may induce automobile travel, and vehicle miles traveled, compared to existing conditions. Transportation projects that reduce, or have no impact on, vehicle miles traveled may be presumed to cause a less than significant transportation impact. To the extent that the potential for induced travel has already been adequately analyzed at a programmatic level, a lead agency may incorporate that analysis be reference.” (Id. at p. II:7.) The Technical Advisory clarifies and lists types of transportation projects not likely to induce significant new travel (and thus significant additional VMT), as well as projects that are likely to induce VMT (such as adding through lanes on new or existing highways and lanes through grade-separated interchanges). (Id. at pp. III:26-III:27.)
  • OPR has included in the Technical Advisory, but not the proposed new Guidelines section, extensive examples of potential mitigation measures and alternatives to reduce VMT taken mostly from the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association’s guide on “Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Measures.” (Id. at pp. III:45-III:46.) Such measures include (without limitation) improving/increasing access to transit; increasing access to common goods/services (e.g., groceries, schools, daycare); incorporating affordable housing and neighborhood electric vehicle network; orienting the project toward transit, bicycle and pedestrian facilities; providing traffic and bicycle calming; and limiting or eliminating parking supply. Alternatives include: locating the project in low VMT areas and near transit; increasing project density and mix of uses; and increasing connectivity and/or intersection density on the project site. (Id. at p. III:46.).

As illustrated by OPR’s Revised Proposal, transportation/traffic impact analysis under CEQA continues to undergo rapid and fundamental change as a result of the 2013 enactment and subsequent implementation of SB 743. Driven by policies to reduce GHG emissions and promote dense, transit-oriented, and pedestrian and bicycle friendly in-fill development, CEQA’s definition of adverse traffic impacts has radically shifted from primarily encompassing automobile delay and congestion impacts to entirely disregarding (as mere motorist annoyances/inconveniences) such impacts. CEQA practitioners dealing with transportation/traffic analysis must now adjust to a “brave new world,” the focal point of which is VMT reduction rather than congestion management. Concerned stakeholders should avail themselves of the opportunity to thoroughly review the Revised Proposal, and provide any input through comments to OPR by the February 29, 2016 deadline.