New Year's Resolution for Public Agencies: Prepare to use Vehicle Miles Traveled as the Metric for Transportation Impacts under CEQA

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A Change in Methodology Will be Required Statewide July 1

Although a paradigm shift for analyzing transportation impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act has been approaching ever since Senate Bill 743 passed in 2013, the deadline for actually changing over from level of service to vehicle miles traveled is finally here. Beginning July 1, VMT will be the metric for analyzing transportation impacts in nearly all CEQA documents.

Level of service’s traffic delay-based standard is the long-standing most common methodology for measuring a project’s transportation impacts under CEQA. Most jurisdictions use LOS to measure traffic congestion on a roadway segment or intersection, and most city and county general plans capture those LOS standards in their circulation elements. Many jurisdictions use those LOS standards as their CEQA thresholds of significance, and impose mitigation that often requires widening roadways and improving traffic flow to reduce traffic delay. However, the adoption of SB 743 (codified at Public Resources Code section 21099) and the subsequent certification of State CEQA Guidelines section 15064.3, are now directing agencies to implement sweeping changes to this approach.

Specifically, section 15064.3 provides that, except for certain roadway capacity projects, “a project’s effect on automobile delay shall not constitute a significant environmental impact.” It further states that “[g]enerally, vehicle miles traveled is the most appropriate measure of transportation impacts” and sets criteria for analyzing transportation effects for land use and transportation projects under CEQA. Although public agencies were allowed to adopt the new VMT methodology early (and many have), the CEQA Guidelines mandate statewide use of VMT (or some other non-LOS metric) beginning July 1. In short, with very limited exceptions, all public agencies at that time will be required to forego using LOS and to begin using VMT or some other non-LOS methodology for analyzing transportation impacts in CEQA documents.

This CEQA paradigm shift requires agencies to be particularly proactive:

  • Agencies, developers and consultants may wish to confirm the status and schedule of pending CEQA documents in deciding whether to use VMT for evaluating traffic impacts.
  • Agencies may wish to consider whether they want to develop a VMT threshold of significance on a jurisdiction-wide basis, or attempt to reach a significance conclusion on a project-by-project basis.
  • Agencies, developers and consultants may wish to consider how to mitigate for VMT-based impacts, and whether/how those mitigation measures differ from traditional LOS-based measures.
  • Agencies, developers, and consultants may wish to consider whether some type of LOS analysis is still required for general plan consistency purposes.
  • Although not required by SB 743, cities and counties may also wish to consider whether and how switching to a VMT analysis should be reflected in their general plans, and whether any existing LOS policies should be revised.

Considering the wholesale change from the LOS methodology — widely used for decades — determining how to successfully make the shift to VMT should not be left to the last minute.

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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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