On January 20, 2016, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) released a new draft proposal for implementing Senate Bill 743 (Steinberg 2013) (SB 743), which would require traffic analysis to be based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) instead of auto delay, commonly measured by Level of Service (LOS). The proposal is an update to an earlier draft released in August 2014. OPR will be accepting public comments until February 29, 2016 before finalizing the proposal for formal rulemaking by the Natural Resources Agency.

Background

As discussed in a previous client alert, SB 743 directs OPR to update the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Guidelines to establish new criteria for determining the significance of transportation impacts for projects within transit priority areas. The new criteria are intended to promote reduced greenhouse gas emissions, multimodal transportation network development and diverse land uses. SB 743 also provides that the new transportation methodologies may be based on, but are not limited to, VMT. Once the new transportation guidelines are certified, SB 743 eliminates automobile delay as a significant impact for a limited category of infill projects located in transit priority areas and infill opportunity zones.

The combination of SB 743 and the draft OPR proposal have caused public agencies and transportation consultants to consider how to measure the VMT associated with a proposed new project, as well as how to determine whether or not the proposed new VMT results in a “significant” adverse environmental impact. Additionally, this proposal has led to continued discussion regarding when and how traffic and transportation sections of CEQA documents should address traffic congestion, safety and delays.

In its prior (August 6, 2014) draft proposal, OPR proposed amendments to the CEQA Guidelines that aimed to replace auto delay with VMT as the primary metric for analyzing qualifying infill projects’ transportation impacts. In the prior proposal, OPR also proposed additions to Appendix F of the Guidelines (Energy Impacts) to provide examples of potential mitigation measures and alternatives to reduce VMT for projects, including measures aimed at improving access to transit, goods and services and improving the jobs/housing fit of a community. OPR also proposed amendments to Appendix G (the Environmental Checklist Form) to revise the model transportation impact criteria.

The August 2014 draft amendments also suggested that a project that increases physical roadway capacity in congested areas or adds new roadways may be growth-inducing and potentially generate significant impacts. Additionally, the August 2014 proposal directed that lead agencies consider the localized safety effects of a project on transportation, including impacts to bicyclists and pedestrians, in determining significant impacts.

Overview of Current Proposal

In the current proposal, OPR continues to recommend adding new CEQA Guidelines Section 15064.3 which would replace auto delay with VMT as the primary metric for analyzing a project’s transportation impacts. The section contains provisions similar to those proposed in the August 2014 draft indicating that projects near transit should be presumed to cause a less than significant transportation impact and that transportation projects which add lane miles may result in induced vehicle travel. The proposal also amends Appendix G to revise the Guidelines’ model transportation impact criteria.

However, the new proposal attempts a more streamlined approach to implement SB 743, with recommendations regarding significance thresholds, including VMT numeric thresholds by project type, included in a draft Technical Advisory (Technical Advisory on Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA). OPR no longer proposes amendments to Appendix F of the Guidelines, as recommendations relating to localized safety, mitigation measures and alternatives are also now included in the draft Technical Advisory. The new Guidelines would remain optional for a two-year period following adoption and would thereafter apply statewide to all development projects.

As noted, the draft Advisory contains guidance regarding thresholds of significance, safety and mitigation measures and alternatives. It also includes case studies providing sample applications of the Advisory. OPR indicates that it will monitor implementation of the new provisions and may update or supplement the Advisory from time-to-time in response to new information and advancements in modeling and methods.

VMT Thresholds

Like the earlier proposal, the section indicates that VMT is generally the most appropriate measure of a project’s potential transportation impacts and that effects on automobile delay do not constitute a significant environmental impact.

The proposal provides that a development project that results in VMT exceeding an “applicable threshold of significance” may indicate a significant impact. The section also indicates that a lead agency’s VMT evaluation is subject to the rule of reason and should not be confined to its own political boundary.

In addition, the section provides that lead agencies may use VMT thresholds of significance recommended by “other public agencies or experts” provided the threshold is supported by substantial evidence. Suggested thresholds by project type, screening thresholds and thresholds for land use plans, among other considerations, are included in the Technical Advisory.

Thresholds for Land Use Projects

For land use projects, OPR selected a numeric threshold of 15% VMT, per capita or per employee, below existing development, based in part on the state’s long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals. Specifically, for residential projects, a significant impact may be triggered if it exceeds both 15% below existing city household VMT per capita, and 15% below existing regional household VMT per capita. For office projects, a significant impact may be triggered if it exceeds a level of 15% below existing regional VMT per employee. For retail projects, any net increase in total VMT may indicate a significant transportation impact.

Thresholds for Land Use Plans

The Advisory indicates that a land use plan may have a significant impact on transportation if it is not consistent with the relevant Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS). This means that a project may be consistent with the SCS if “development specified in the plan is also specified in the SCS (i.e., the plan does not specify developing outlying areas specified as open space in the SCS),” and “taken as a whole, development specified in the plan leads to VMT that is equal to or less than the VMT per capita and VMT per employee specified in the SCS.” Alternatively, the Advisory indicates that thresholds for plans in non-MPO areas should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Thresholds for Transportation Projects

The Advisory includes a recommended threshold of approximately 2 million VMT per year per transportation project, based on a fair share calculation of all statewide transportation projects estimated to be completed between 2015-2030, as well as a statewide budget of 4% increase in VMT over 2014 levels.

Projects within 1/2 Mile of Transit

Section 15064.3 would provide that development projects within one-half mile of transit (i.e., an existing major transit stop or stop along an existing high quality transit corridor) may be presumed to cause a less than significant transportation impact.

OPR includes examples of factors for lead agencies to consider that may rebut this presumption in the Technical Advisory. Those factors include: floor area ratio of less than 0.75, parking in excess of that required by jurisdiction, or inconsistency with the applicable SCS. If these exceptions to the presumption might apply, the Advisory indicates that the lead agency should conduct a detailed analysis to determine whether the project would exceed VMT thresholds.

Induced Vehicle Travel and Transportation Projects

Section 15064.3 would include a provision indicating that the additional lane miles may induce auto travel and VMT, compared to existing conditions. OPR’s proposal would also amend Appendix G to focus on whether a project would “cause substantial additional” VMT, or induce additional travel by increasing physical roadway in a congested area or by adding roadway to the network.

The recommendations in the Technical Advisory expand upon the proposed amendments and clarify that certain transportation projects are not likely to induce significant new travel. Those projects include, among others, installation, removal, or reconfiguration of traffic lanes that are not for through traffic, new local or collector streets and conversion of general purpose lanes to managed lanes or transit lanes. The Advisory notes that projects likely to lead to an increase in VMT include addition of through lanes on existing or new highways, HOV lanes and lanes through grade-separated interchanges.

Safety

In describing the purpose of Section 15063.4, the proposed amendment indicates that other relevant considerations in an agency’s determination of CEQA impacts include the effects of the project on transit and non-motorized travel and the safety of all travelers. However, OPR removed earlier proposed provisions relating to a project’s impacts on localized safety. Instead, OPR included research addressing transportation safety considerations, as well as examples of safety-related mitigation measures, in the Advisory.

Similarly, within Appendix G, OPR no longer proposes criteria suggesting that a lead agency consider the localized safety impacts of a project on pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and others. The transportation criteria in Appendix G would instead ask whether a project would conflict with a plan, ordinance or policy addressing safety or performance of a circulation system and includes a carve-out excepting automobile LOS from this consideration.

Data Availability and Qualitative Analysis

OPR indicates that data on VMT throughout the state is now available from the California Statewide Travel Demand Model, which can be used to assist agencies in setting thresholds and estimating VMT resulting from a project. Case studies illustrating recommended approaches are also included in the Technical Advisory.

Section 15063.4 would also permit a lead agency to prepare a qualitative analysis “if existing models or methods are not available” for a quantitative estimate of a particular project’s VMT. Such qualitative factors could include the availability of transit, proximity to other destinations and area demographics. The proposal indicates that for many projects, a qualitative analysis of construction traffic may be appropriate.

Mitigation and Alternatives

As noted above, OPR moved the examples of potential mitigations and alternatives aimed at reducing vehicular travel to the Advisory, indicating that these were largely drawn from the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association’s guide on Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Measures.

The Advisory includes the following potential measures to reduce VMT:

  • Improve or increasing access to transit.
  • Increase access to common goods and services, such as groceries, schools and daycare.
  • Incorporate affordable housing into the project. Incorporate neighborhood electric vehicle network.
  • Orient the project toward transit, bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Improve pedestrian or bicycle networks, or transit service.
  • Provide traffic calming. Provide bicycle parking.
  • Limit or eliminating parking supply.
  • Unbundle parking costs.
  • Provide parking or roadway pricing or cash-out programs.
  • Implement or provide access to a commute reduction program.
  • Provide car-sharing, bike sharing and ride-sharing programs.
  • Provide transit passes.

Examples of project alternatives included in the Advisory aimed at reducing VMT include the following:

  • Locate the project in an area of the region that already exhibits low vehicle miles traveled.
  • Locate the project near transit.
  • Increase project density.
  • Increase the mix of uses within the project, or within the project’s surroundings.
  • Increase connectivity and/or intersection density on the project site.
  • Deploy management (e.g., pricing, vehicle occupancy requirements) on roadways or roadway lanes.

Next Steps

It remains to be seen whether additional revisions may ensue following the close of the public comment period at the end of February and prior to the proposal’s submission to the Natural Resources Agency for rulemaking. OPR’s decision to set forth some of its proposal in the form of a draft Technical Advisory also presents a series of questions for CEQA lead agencies and traffic consultants. While the methodology and standards in the Technical Advisory may not be included in the CEQA Guideline text, agencies and consultants may find it difficult as a practical matter to explain or justify why a future analysis departs from the Technical Advisory.