California Proposes Overhaul of Standards for Analyzing Traffic Impacts

by Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP
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Last month Governor Jerry Brown’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) released for public review and debate proposed draft amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act’s implementing guidelines (CEQA Guidelines). If ultimately approved, the guidelines will fundamentally change the way transportation-related environmental impacts are analyzed and mitigated throughout California.

While the proposed amendments are currently in draft form and therefore remain subject to change or even withdrawal, if the proposal advances, automobile delay will generally no longer be considered a significant impact on the environment for CEQA purposes. Once approved, the provisions will take effect immediately in California’s transit priority areas, and then statewide in 2016, unless adopted earlier by a local community.

Today, CEQA’s transportation analyses focus on the delay experienced by an individual automobile driver at a study intersection or on a roadway segment. Traffic engineers quantify this delay through a metric known as “level of service” or LOS.

Targeting the LOS standard, last year Senate Bill 743 (Steinberg) was approved and signed into law requiring OPR to prepare revisions to the CEQA Guidelines that establish criteria for determining the significance of transportation impacts within transit priority areas. SB 743 followed on the heels of the implementation of Senator Steinberg’s previous legislation, SB 375, and AB 32, which together placed a heightened focus on the link between land use and transportation planning decisions and greenhouse gas emissions in California. In addition to the increased need for local governments to focus on greenhouse gas emissions reductions through land use and transportation planning, the California Complete Streets Act of 2008 had required local governments to plan for a balanced, multimodal transportation network that meets the needs of all users of streets, roads, and highways for safe and convenient travel.

Taken together, these mandates present a sometimes conflicting challenge: under the traditional methods of analyzing transportation-related environmental impacts, automobile delay (expressed in LOS standards) was the key metric. Typical mitigation for automobile delay involves adding roadway capacity by increasing the size or width of intersections – a wholly automobile-focused solution that tended to disincentive increased adoption of alternate modes of transportation. SB 743, and as reflected in OPR’s new proposal, seeks to eliminate this disincentive, with the legislative intent of “more appropriately balanc[ing] the needs of congestion management with statewide goals related to infill development, promotion of public health through active transportation, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

OPR’s proposal is not a light read, and is not without controversy. At 45 pages, the proposal reads more like a white paper than an administrative rulemaking. The OPR proposal includes one new CEQA Guideline and a variety of other amendments to the Guidelines’ appendices. The new Guideline is where the rubber meets the road. In general, the proposal includes the following:

  • The amount and distance of automobile travel associated with a project will become the key metrics for CEQA transportation analyses;
  • Additional considerations in CEQA transportation analyses will include the effects of a project on transit and nonmotorized travel, and the safety of all travelers;
  • Indirect transportation-related environmental effects (such as noise and air quality) must still be considered; and
  • Automobile delay will no longer be considered a potentially significant environmental effect requiring mitigation.

As is always the case with any regulation, the devil is in the details, and like most of the recent CEQA proposals, this proposal includes a lot of language. To start, “. . . A development project that is not exempt and that results in vehicle miles traveled greater than regional average for the land use type (e.g., residential, employment, commercial) may indicate a significant impact.” This section immediately raises a variety of questions, including whether “employment” is properly classified as a land use type, and how analysis or evaluation of an employment land use would differ from analysis or evaluation of a commercial land use. This lack of clarity is a red flag for future CEQA problems and litigation.

A variety of options are given for measuring the benchmark “regional average,” including per capita, per employee, per trip, per person-trip, or other appropriate measures. The draft Guideline is unclear as to what might occur if you choose one standard over another.

If a project results in a net decrease in vehicle miles traveled compared to existing conditions, the proposed Guideline tells us it may be considered to have a less than significant transportation impact. If the project is a “land use plan” that is either consistent with a sustainable communities strategy or that achieves at least an equivalent reduction in vehicle miles traveled as projected to result from the implementation of a sustainable communities strategy, then the transportation impacts may also generally be considered less than significant. Development projects that locate within one-half mile of an existing major transit stop or a stop along an existing “high-quality” transit corridor “generally may be considered to have a less than significant transportation impact.”

The use of the word “generally” throughout the draft Guideline, and the lack of defined terms, is also likely to raise a lot of questions and comment.

For purposes of the proposed Guideline, “region” apparently means a metropolitan planning organization or the regional transportation planning agency in which a project is located. A valid question here is how a region can be a public agency. Did OPR mean within the boundaries of a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) or Regional Transportation Planning Agency (RTPA)? The proposal makes clear that a lead agency generally should not confine its transportation impact evaluation to its own political boundary.

One of the most interesting parts of the proposal is the section that requires any transportation project that increases roadway capacity for automobiles in a congested area, or adds a new roadway to the network, to analyze whether the project will induce additional automobile travel compared to existing conditions. Under this new “traffic-inducing” analysis, if a project increases roadway capacity by the addition of a general-purpose highway or arterial lane, then it may have a significant impact (or it may not), unless it is a rural roadway where the primary purpose is to improve safety and where speeds are not significantly altered (in that case, the Guideline doesn’t indicate what happens).

If the transportation project does not add physical roadway capacity but instead is for the purpose of improving safety or operations, that would not generally result in a significant transportation impact. The draft Guideline proposes the same result for new managed lanes, short auxiliary lanes, and other projects consistent with a Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy “for which induced travel was already adequately analyzed.”

Transportation projects (including lane priority for transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects) that lead to net decreases in vehicle miles traveled, compared to existing conditions, may also be considered to have a less than significant transportation impact.

To say that OPR’s proposal is an overhaul is an understatement – if adopted, the draft Guideline will fundamentally change how California thinks about transportation and traffic. Because of the sweeping nature of the proposed changes to California’s standards for transportation-related environmental impact analysis, we can expect significant comments to be received by OPR. If you wish to weigh in, do so by October 10, 2014 to CEQA.Guidelines@ceres.ca.gov

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This article originally appeared in Environmental Leader as part of a series of articles written by Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP’s Energy, Environment & Natural Resources practice.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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