Urban TrafficIn late January, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) released its revised proposal to update the CEQA Guidelines with respect to the analysis of transportation impacts. OPR has not backed off from the main thrust of its original proposal: abandonment of “level of service” (LOS) in favor of “vehicle miles travelled” (VMT) as the primary metric of significance. However, the revised proposal recognizes that implementation of this sea-change in one of the most complex (and heavily litigated) areas of impact analysis cannot happen overnight, and lead agencies and consultants will benefit from some technical assistance up front.

Currently, the most common metric used in evaluating a project’s transportation impacts is LOS, which measures the delay that vehicles experience at intersections and on roadway segments. However, as OPR noted in its original proposal, focusing on a project’s impact on LOS often has unintended consequences, including the imposition of mitigation measures – such as increased roadway capacity – that can exacerbate poor traffic conditions over the long term. It can also discourage infill development, because adding traffic to urban areas increases the likelihood of a finding of significance that would trigger the need for an environmental impact report (EIR).

To address this problem, SB 743 (Steinberg, 2013) created a process for revising the CEQA Guidelines for transportation impact analysis. SB 743 required OPR to establish criteria for determining the significance of transportation impacts of projects located within “transit priority areas” (areas located within 1/2 mile of an existing or proposed major transit stop) that would promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and replace LOS. SB 743 also gave OPR the authority to apply the new metric outside of transit priority areas.

OPR’s original proposal, released in August 2014, proposed a new Guidelines section, Section 15064.3, that identified VMT – the distance of automobile travel associated with a project – as the principal metric for evaluating a project’s transportation impacts. It also explicitly stated that a project’s effect on automobile delay, measured by LOS, will no longer constitute a significant environmental impact under CEQA. The new Guideline was not limited to transit priority areas. Instead, it envisioned VMT becoming the new standard across the State very quickly – by January 1, 2016.

That did not happen. Instead, OPR received nearly 200 comment letters on the original proposal, and the agency did not release its revised proposal until January 2016. The revised proposal maintains the key elements of the prior version:

  • VMT will generally be “the most appropriate measure of a project’s potential transportation impacts”;
  • “Generally, development projects that locate within one-half mile of either an existing major transit stop or a stop along an existing high quality transit corridor may be presumed to cause a less than significant transportation impact”;
  • A project’s effect on automobile delay (LOS) “does not constitute a significant environmental impact”; and
  • The new Guideline will apply statewide.

However, OPR’s revised proposal does acknowledge that some lead agencies and CEQA consultants have not yet mastered VMT analysis, and may need some help in getting up to speed. For this reason, the revised version of the Guideline provides a two-year grace period before mandatory statewide implementation would be triggered (though lead agencies can choose to opt in at any time). OPR also simultaneously issued a comprehensive “Technical Advisory on Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA” that contains OPR’s technical recommendations and best practices for developing significance thresholds and estimating VMT impacts.

Although further revisions may be forthcoming as a result of public comment on the revised proposal, it now appears that the formal rulemaking for the proposal could commence by mid-2016. If this is the case, we anticipate that the new Guideline will become effective in 2017, (absent any legal challenge) and the long-lived era of LOS will come to an end in 2019. However, it is unlikely that the switch to VMT will reduce the controversies over transportation impacts that often lead to CEQA litigation.