CEQA Alert: The End of Level of Service (“LOS”) Analysis? OPR Proposes New Guidelines for Evaluating Transportation Impacts

On August 6, 2014, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) released its preliminary recommendations for changing how transportation impacts are analyzed under CEQA: Updating Transportation Impacts Analysis in the CEQA Guidelines, Preliminary Discussion Draft of Updates to the CEQA Guidelines Implementing Senate Bill 743 (Steinberg, 2013).

Currently, the most common metric used in evaluating a project’s transportation impacts is “level of service” (LOS), which measures the delay that vehicles experience at intersections and on roadway segments. According to OPR, focusing on a project’s impact on LOS provides an incomplete assessment of potential impacts and often results in unintended consequences, including the imposition of mitigation measures – such as increased roadway capacity – that may actually exacerbate poor traffic conditions over the long term. The LOS metric can also create additional hurdles for infill development projects, because adding vehicles to an already congested urban environment increases the likelihood of a finding that the project’s impacts are potentially significant, thereby triggering the need for an environmental impact report (EIR). 

SB 743, signed into law on September 27, 2013 and codified at Public Resources Code Section 21099, created a process for revising the CEQA Guidelines for transportation impact analysis. SB 743 requires OPR to establish new criteria for determining the significance of transportation impacts of projects located within “transit priority areas,” which are areas located within one-half mile of an existing or proposed major transit stop. The criteria must “promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks, and a diversity of land uses.” Following adoption of the new criteria, automobile delay, as described solely by LOS or similar measures of vehicular capacity or traffic congestion, will not be considered a significant impact under CEQA for such projects, except in locations specifically identified in the Guidelines. Although this mandate focuses on projects in “transit priority areas,” SB 743 provides that OPR may adopt guidelines establishing alternative metrics for evaluating transportation impacts outside of transit priority areas as well. As discussed below, OPR has proposed to do just that. 

OPR’s Preliminary Discussion Draft responds to SB 743 by proposing a new Guidelines section, Section 15064.3, focused on evaluating the significance of transportation impacts and developing alternatives and mitigation measures related to those impacts. The proposed Section 15064.3 identifies “vehicle miles traveled” – the distance of automobile travel associated with a project – as the principal metric for evaluating a project’s transportation impacts, and it explicitly states that a project’s effect on automobile delay will no longer constitute a significant environmental impact under CEQA. It also provides additional guidance with respect to evaluating transportation impacts associated with various types of land use and transportation projects. Finally, it identifies several factors that a lead agency may consider in evaluating transportation-related impacts on local safety, including those relating to bicyclists and pedestrians, queuing on freeway off-ramps, speed differentials between adjacent travel lanes, and increased motor vehicle speeds.

OPR proposes a phased approach to the implementation of the new Guidelines. Once filed with the Secretary of State, the proposed changes would immediately apply (prospectively) to the analysis of projects located within one-half mile of major transit stops or high-quality transit corridors.  For other areas, a lead agency may choose to be governed by the new provisions if it updates its CEQA procedures to conform to the provisions of the new Section 15064.3. After January 1, 2016, the new section would apply statewide.

Comments and suggestions on the draft are due to OPR before October 10, 2014 at 5:00 p.m. OPR expects that the preliminary discussion draft will “undergo significant revisions in response to public input.” The preliminary discussion draft and instructions for submitting comments and suggestions are available here.

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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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