CEQA VMT reform has a fatal flaw

If you are not otherwise occupied on Thursday afternoon, you may want to attend the California Natural Resources Agency hearing on CEQA reform. The hearing is Thursday, March 15, 1:30 to 4:30, at California Energy Commission, Rosenfeld Hearing Room, 1516 9th St, Sacramento, CA 95814. One of the great things about living in Sacramento is the opportunity to influence state policy and legislation in a way that people in other parts of the state cannot. We can be their proxies.

As a result of a multi-year planning process, the Office of Planning and Research (OPR) developed recommendations to improve CEQA to address some shortcomings, particularly that it has been used to stop good development, infill and mixed use, while encouraging greenfield development. The recommendations are now being passed along to the California Natural Resources Agency for adoption, since that is the agency that administers CEQA.

While there are great improvements contained in the proposal, there is what I consider to be a fatal flaw. From the OPR document (15064.3, Subdivision (b)(2): Transportation Projects): “Subdivision (b)(2) clarifies that projects that reduce VMT, such as pedestrian, bicycle and transit projects, should be presumed to have a less than significant impact. This subdivision further provides that lead agencies have discretion in which measure to use to evaluate roadway, including highway, capacity projects, provided that any such analysis is consistent with the requirements of CEQA and any other applicable requirements (e.g., local planning rules). Importantly, this provision does not prohibit capacity expansion.”

What this means is that transportation agencies can continue to use outmoded and harmful Level of Service (LOS) instead of using Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). To my mind, the main point of CEQA reform was to eliminate LOS, the insidious concept that has led to our unsustainable transportation system. It does so for land use, but does not do so for transportation projects. This is a fatal flaw.

A coalition of environmental and transportation advocacy organizations developed a letter to Resources that addresses the flaw, but seems to give up any hope of making it right, instead hoping that Caltrans will adopt VMT. They might, but I can assure you that many agencies never will unless forced to. Sacramento County, for one, lives in a 1970s mindset that congestion is the great evil that can be met only through roadway expansion, now and forever. [“Apply a VMT-based approach to all projects, including road capacity projects. We are sorely disappointed that the proposed Section 15064.3(b) exempts roadway capacity projects from using a VMT-based measure of transportation-related environmental impacts. With the proposed rulemaking, the State has determined that the best approach to measuring transportationn-related environment impacts is vehicle miles traveled; yet, at the same time, the State has exempted projects with arguably the greatest impact on the environment from using that metric. To close this loophole that threatens California’s environment and public health, we will be recommending that Caltrans commit to applying the VMT metric when they are the responsible agency.”]

If this exemption of transportation projects is not deleted, the exercise will be one of futility because transportation projects have such a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions, both directly from vehicle emissions, and secondarily by encouraging sprawl which itself has a huge impact on emissions.

To be honest, it took me a while and help from several people to find this flaw, and there may be others I’ve missed, but I do still think that the remainder of the proposal is good.

OPR Current CEQA Guidelines Update page: http://opr.ca.gov/ceqa/updates/guidelines/

NRA CEQA page: http://resources.ca.gov/ceqa/

NRDC: California Gets It Right on Transportation—Almost

Streetsblog California: Update: Last Chance to Comment on Statewide Changes to CEQA

3 thoughts on “CEQA VMT reform has a fatal flaw

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