The Governor's Office of Planning and Research (OPR) was mandated by SB 743 in 2013 to revise the CEQA Guidelines to eliminate the use of Level of Service (LOS) in determining transportation impacts under CEQA. The second draft of the new CEQA Guidelines to implement SB 743 was released for public comment on January 20, 2016. OPR's draft continues to use vehicle miles travelled (VMT) as the appropriate measure of transportation impacts. In addition, the draft Guidelines include recommendations that development proposed near transit, as well as roadway rehabilitation, transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects, should be considered to have less than significant transportation impacts. One significant change from the first draft is the movement of much of the detail to a new draft Technical Advisory in order to make clear what is a requirement as opposed to a recommendation.
Traditional means of transportation mitigation, such as adding roadway capacity or building new roads, will be more heavily scrutinized because of their potential to increase VMT.
This fundamental change in evaluating transportation impacts has created a significant amount of concern both in the development industry and the environmental consulting industry. OPR continues to consider and respond to industry input and, apparently as a result of the comments, has recommended that the new procedures be optional for a two-year period in order to provide more time for agencies to adapt to the new procedures.
The obvious legislative intent behind SB 743 was to encourage infill and transit-oriented development and project design in order to address a need to improve air quality, safety and health through a reduction in vehicle miles travelled and the resultant reduction in greenhouse gases. Among the concerns that have been expressed and the questions that have been posed are the following:
- Will LOS still be relevant with respect to other environmental impacts such as air quality and safety?
- LOS may still be included among other development standards such as General Plans. If a project is required to implement mitigation to meet LOS requirements to achieve General Plan consistency, will the extra local capacity created by these improvements trigger additional VMT mitigation?
- The public will still be concerned about congestion. How will decision makers respond to community opposition to increases in traffic delays that would result from the use of VMT, and not LOS, as a measure of determining impact and mitigation?
- The use of VMT assumes that people will want to live in the type of development environment envisioned by OPR. What if this assumption proves to be incorrect? What would be the impact on the economy if there is a limited market for these projects?
- How will VMT be determined? There appears to be a lack of available data to support a VMT analysis in many communities.
- What is the appropriate regional context that should be considered regarding VMT impacts? OPR suggests that a project exceeding 15% below existing regional VMT per employee would be considered to be a significant transportation impact. Not all communities are the same from a regional standpoint.
These and many other technical issues will continue to be of concern. It is important for industries and businesses that may be impacted by the new Guidelines to become a part of this process by reviewing and commenting on these draft Guidelines and any future revisions that are produced. While the use of VMT is unlikely to change, input on issues such as the foregoing may significantly lessen any adverse impacts of this fundamental change of direction.