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On January 3, 2019 the Natural Resources Agency (“Agency”) announced that the long awaited comprehensive amendments to the CEQA Guidelines are now in effect.  The last major update to the Guidelines was in the late 1990s.  As a result, the Agency and the Office of Planning and Research (OPR) had a significant amount of material to synthesize in preparing these amendments, including several legislative changes and over two decades of CEQA case law.

The amendments include two new sections and revisions to 29 existing sections and three appendices.  Many of the revisions merely reflect holdings from previous case law and will not generate new requirements in preparing CEQA documents.  Some revisions, however, do constitute substantive changes in impact analysis and it will be important for public agency staff, environmental consultants, and attorneys to review these amendments carefully.  To access a complete copy of the revised CEQA Guidelines click here.

Instead of summarizing all of the amendments in a single blog post, we will be focusing on categories of amendments to the Guidelines in a more digestible multi-part series. For this first post, we will be focusing on Guideline amendments in the areas of transportation impacts including a discussion of OPR’s December 2018 Technical Advisory On Evaluating Transportation Impacts.

Part One – Guideline Revisions in the Area of Transportation Impacts

The most noteworthy revisions to the Guidelines are in the area of transportation impacts.  These revisions originate from Senate Bill 743 (SB 743), signed by Governor Brown in 2013, which directed OPR to develop revisions to the Guidelines:

“establishing criteria for determining the significance of transportation impacts of projects within transit priority areas . . . that promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks, and a diversity of land uses” and to “recommend potential metrics to measure transportation impacts that may include, but are not limited to, vehicle miles traveled, vehicle miles traveled per capita, automobile trip generation rates, or automobile trips generated.”

(Pub. Res. Code, § 21099(b)(1), emphasis added.)  SB 743 also provided that upon certification of the revised Guidelines “automobile delay, as described solely by level of service or similar measures of vehicular capacity or traffic congestion shall not be considered a significant impact on the environment . . . except in locations specifically identified in the guidelines, if any.” (Pub. Res. Code, § 21099(b)(2), emphasis added.)

New Section 15064.3

Implementing SB 743, new Guidelines section 15064.3 establishes vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as the most appropriate measure of transportation impacts, shifting away from the level of service (LOS) analysis that evaluated a project’s impacts on traffic conditions on nearby roadways and intersections.  The primary components of new section 15064.3 include:

  • Identifies vehicle miles traveled (amount and distance of automobile traffic attributable to a project) as the most appropriate measure of transportation impacts;
  • Declares that a project’s effect on automobile delay shall not constitute a significant environmental impact (except for projects increasing roadway capacity);
  • Creates a rebuttable presumption of no significant transportation impacts for (a) land use projects within one-half mile of either an existing major transit stop or a stop along an existing high quality transit corridor, (b) land use projects that reduce VMT below existing conditions, and (c) transportation projects that reduce or have no impact on VMT;
  • Allows a lead agency to qualitatively evaluate VMT if existing models are not available; and
  • Gives lead agencies discretion to select a methodology to evaluate a project’s VMT, but requires lead agencies to document that methodology in the environmental document prepared for the project (OPR’s technical advisory provides recommendation on preferable methodology).

Lead agencies will be required to comply with the Guideline revisions regarding VMT starting July 1, 2020, but agencies may elect to use the VMT metric immediately.

In December 2018, OPR issued a Technical Advisory On Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA, updating its April 2018 technical advisory.  The technical advisory contains technical recommendations regarding assessment of VMT, thresholds of significance, and mitigation measures. Most notably, the technical advisory suggests a significance threshold for VMT that is based on state mandated greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.  The technical advisory recommends a quantitative per capita or per employee VMT that is fifteen percent below that of existing development as a possible threshold of significance that would comply with the State’s long-term climate goals. OPR notes that at present, consistency with a Regional Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS) does not necessarily lead to a less-than-significant VMT impact because there is a “gap between what SB 375 can provide and what is needed to meet the State’s 2030 and 2050 goals.”  (CARB, 2017 Scoping Plan, p. 75.)

OPR recommends the use of tour- and trip-based approaches as the best methodology for residential/office projects, selecting the tour-based assessment as the most ideal when available. For retail projects, OPR recommends analyzing total change in VMT because retail projects typically re-route travel from other retail destinations.

For residential, office, and retail projects, OPR recommends utilizing numeric thresholds, so a proposed office project exceeding a level of 15 percent below existing regional VMT per employee may indicate a significant transportation impact whereas for a proposed retail project a net increase in total VMT may indicate a significant transportation impact.  For land use plans, OPR recommends that agencies analyze VMT outcomes over the full area that the plan affects.  And as to all projects, OPR states that the lead agency should consider VMT for all portions of a trip, even those portions that are outside of the agency’s jurisdiction.

OPR acknowledges that roadway expansion projects can induce substantial VMT and recommend evaluating the effect on vehicle travel using the change in total VMT and provides a formula for estimating VMT impacts for roadway expansion projects.

The Technical Advisory also provides recommendations to lead agencies for developing screening thresholds for those projects that can be expected to cause a less-than-significant impact and do not require a detailed study.  Screening thresholds discussed in the Advisory include thresholds for small projects, map-based screening for residential and office projects, and a presumption of LTS for projects near transit stations and affordable housing developments.

Lastly, the Technical Advisory provides a long list of potential mitigation measures as well as project alternatives that can be applied to reduce VMT.

Changes to Consultation Requirements

As part of the heightened focus on analysis of transportation impacts, the Agency has also revised existing requirements for lead agency consultation with public transit agencies.  Under existing Guidelines Sections 15072 (Neg. Dec.) and 15086 (EIR) for projects of “statewide, regional, or areawide significance,” lead agencies must either notify (Neg. Dec.) or consult with (EIR) “transportation planning agencies and public agencies which have transportation facilities within their jurisdiction which could be affected by the project.”  (Emphasis added.)  The 2019 revisions now require the lead agency to “consult with public transit agencies with facilities within one-half mile of the proposed project” regardless of whether the project could affect those facilities and regardless of whether the agency is preparing a Negative Declaration or EIR.  (Guidelines, §§ 15072(e); 15086(a)(5).  This half-mile radius ties in with subsection (b)(1) of new section 15064.3 which provides that “[g]enerally, projects within one-half mile of either an existing major transit stop or a stop along an existing high-quality transit corridor should be presumed to cause a less than significant impact.”

Changes to Appendices G and N

Section XVII of Appendix G (Environmental Checklist) and Appendix N (Infill Checklist) previously titled “Transportation/Traffic” now renamed “Transportation,” has been significantly revised to reflect the state’s new focus on reducing VMT and the near elimination of concern with degrading LOS.  Section XVII has been revised to reduce the duplication between former subsections (a) and (f) concerning a project’s conflicts with circulation plans (including vehicle, transit, bicycle, pedestrian).  Subsection (b) of Section XVII now cross-references the requirements in new Section 15064.3.  Subsection (c) regarding changes in air traffic patterns has been eliminated without explanation from OPR.  Finally, subsection (d) regarding hazards, has been clarified to refer to “geometric design features” to clarify the question related to design features.

Appendix M: Performance Standards for Infill Projects

Appendix M, which contains performance standards for infill projects receiving streamlined environmental review under 15183.3, has been amended to state that residential projects located within one-half mile of an existing major transit stop or high quality transfer corridor, office projects located within a quarter mile of an existing major transit stop or high quality transfer corridor, and any school within a half mile of an existing major transit stop or existing stop along a high quality transit corridor are eligible for streamlining.  These amendments were necessary to correct a typographical error in the previously adopted regulatory text.