Changes to the transportation analysis guidelines specified in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) should ease approval of infill and urban development, but may result in challenges for local governments that depend on Level of Service mitigation requirements to fund their road infrastructure projects.
Level of Service Primer
Under current environmental rules, projects that create or increase road congestion are considered an environmental impact that must be mitigated, often by expanding roads for more cars, even if that mitigation actually increases greenhouse gas emissions.
Discretionary development projects in California may trigger an analysis of the “Level of Service” (LOS) impact the project will have on motor vehicle traffic. LOS is graded on a level of A to F, with A used to designate free flowing traffic with no delay to motor vehicles, and F indicating near gridlock and long (80+ seconds) waits at intersections. Many cities aim for Level of Service “C,” which means less than 25 seconds of delay at intersections, and comfortable spacing between cars. LOS “C” is considered a good balance between capacity and utilization. A discretionary project developed near roads operating at LOS “D” and worse will likely trigger a traffic analysis.
Caltrans requires a Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) for any project that generates more than 100 peak hour trips on any state highway, with lower thresholds for state highways operating at LOS C or below. Local agencies have their own thresholds that can trigger an LOS analysis on surface streets near a project.
Under the flawed theory that stalled traffic leads to more air pollution, “environmental mitigations” might be required of developments with significant impacts on LOS. A new hotel in my town, for example, will result in longer waits at a major intersection between the freeway and the hotel. The required environmental mitigations will be (1) addition of a second left turn lane and (2) removal of a pedestrian crosswalk to “reduce overall delays for the other movements (of car traffic) at the intersection,” all because the delay will be a few seconds longer during the peak hour. Never mind the fact that these intersecting six lane arterials are vastly overcapacity for a town of 12,000 for 23 hours of the day. Awesome, huh?
Every state highway in the populated portions of California operate at Level of Service C or below, so even relatively small projects will trigger a traffic impact analysis and may require expensive mitigation. Developers are thus tempted to build out in the boondocks, where freeways are free flowing, the cost of performing the traffic analysis is zero, and no mitigation is required.
Before long, traffic from the near suburbs fills up because of this new development, so builders must set their sights even further afield. Eventually, people drive a hundred miles from their inexpensive homes two or three counties away. Our current policy of mitigating LOS with capacity expansions encourages sprawl and significantly more miles traveled in a motor vehicle.
SB 743, which dramatically changes CEQA state law on the transportation impacts, was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2013. The California Office of Planning and Research (OPR) are now in the final phases of accepting comments before completing their rulemaking process to implement SB 743, which will remove LOS analysis and replace it with an analysis on “vehicle miles traveled.”
“These new rules help remove a quirk of California environmental law that made it harder to build projects that improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ken Alex, Director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. “Not only does this proposal remove barriers to infill development, walking, biking and public transportation, it also explicitly recognizes that such projects have less-than-significant impacts under environmental law.”
Important changes have happened to the OPR draft guidelines since Streetsblog published their report on the initial draft guidelines in 2014, although many of the important parts remains the same. OPR continues to recommend vehicle miles traveled as the most appropriate measure of project transportation impacts. This proposal continues to recommend that development proposed near transit, as well as roadway rehabilitation, transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects, should be considered to have a less than significant transportation impact. OPR continues to recommend application of that measure across the state. Finally, OPR continues to recommend that implementation be phased in over time.
OPR also introduced important changes between the preliminary guidelines and the current proposal. Many of the guidelines have been moved away from the regulatory text to a “Technical Advisory” section, which removes the force of law requirements. A new methodology to analyze safety impact to pedestrians, cyclists and transit users was among those moved to this advisory section.
The current proposal will allow a two-year transitional period, allowing existing projects to continue and giving agencies and local governments time to adopt the new rules. Local governments also have additional flexibility in adopting VMT thresholds. The new draft includes new guidelines for rural development and small projects. Finally, new threshold recommendations are now more closely aligned with SB 375 greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.
Local funding for infrastructure?
I’m told many local jurisdictions depend on LOS mitigation requirements for their capital improvement dollars. These changes to state law will eliminate this source of revenue. Those in the know tell me some of this revenue loss can be replaced by implementing impact fees on new developments. Local governments need to be careful when using impact fees to fund local infrastructure projects through the use of good planning documents.
Some local and regional agencies are on the ball, with VTA in Santa Clara County, for example, already recommending VMT calculations as part of a traffic impact analysis. Other local governments will likely do a last minute mad dash when VMT finally becomes the law of the land in 2019.
City and counties throughout California will still have planning documents on the books with Level of Service requirements. These requirements will be found in the local zoning code and in the transportation element of the general plan. The general plan in particular can be a decade long process to update, so local advocates should watch for opportunities to update these items. If your town or county has a BPAC, initiate discussion now for a study session on how SB 743 will require changes in local code.
The entire document is only 57 pages and fairly easy to read if you can learn the three-letter-acronyms. The public can comment on the rules by submitting comments to CEQA.Guidelines@resources.ca.gov by 5:00pm on February 29, 2016. The OPR provides these tips for providing public input.
- In your comments, please clearly identify the specific issues on which you are commenting. If you are commenting on a particular word, phrase, or sentence, please provide the page number and paragraph citation.
- Explain why you agree or disagree with OPR’s proposed changes. Where you disagree with a particular portion of the proposal, please suggest alternative language.
- Describe any assumptions and support assertions with legal authority and factual information, including any technical information and data. Where possible, provide specific examples to illustrate your concerns.
- When possible, consider trade-offs and potentially opposing views.
- Focus comments on the issues that are covered within the scope of the proposed changes. Avoid addressing rules or policies other than those contained in this proposal.
- Consider quality over quantity. One well-supported comment may be more influential than one hundred form letters.
- Please submit any comments within the timeframe provided.
After this final public comment period ends on February 29, the final proposal moves from OPR to the California Natural Resources Agency to commence the formal rulemaking process under the Administrative Procedure Act. The regulations are anticipated to be effective statewide in 2019.
Photos shot by Yours Truly; slide images come from OPR presentation on the topic (see link below). A huge thank you to my bus buddy Anais Schenk, a professional transportation planner who tolerates my inquisitiveness on these topics. To learn more about SB 743 and changes in CEQA law, see:
- California Office of Planning and Research SB 743 information page.
- Fehr & Peers, a transportation consulting firm in the San Francisco Bay Area, published summary of updates in OPR’s SB 743 draft proposal.
- Why should you care about this stuff? Because bad things can happen if you don’t pay attention.