CEQA hearing

This is a follow-on to my Wednesday post on the CEQA Guidelines update/reform: CEQA VMT reform has a fatal flaw.

Four organizations spoke at the hearing:

  • Climate Resolve (Ella): spoke against exemption, spoke about equity and displacement, mentioned request to Caltrans to use VMT instead of LOS
  • City of San Jose: spoke against transportation exemption, apparently submitted letter signed by other cities but I didn’t catch which ones; San Jose recently adopted VMT as their measure for transportation and development (Streetsblog Cal: San Jose Becomes Fourth California City to Adopt VMT as Metric for Traffic Impacts)
  • Coalition for Clean Air: spoke to reducing VMT as the best path to reducing emissions
  • California Bicycle Coalition (Linda): spoke about equity and displacement issues, on need to monitor and determine consistency, spoke against exemption

And I spoke, the sole citizen speaker:

  • I reject the language in 15064.3, Subdivision (b)(2), which exempts transportation from any requirement to use VMT rather than LOS.
  • Overall, the changes will affect development in a positive way, encouraging infill and discouraging greenfield development, however, transportation drives greenfield development drives rather than greenfield development driving transportation, so the overall benefit will be much lessened by the transportation exemption.
  • Transportation is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in California (about 39%), but this language does little to address transportation
  • The draft guidelines specifically say “this provision does not prohibit capacity expansion.” But capacity expansion is the largest single contributor to exist and future emissions. This is exactly the issue that most needs to be solved
  • In the Sacramento region, nearly every county and city will continue to use LOS rather than VMT, with the possible exception of Sacramento city and Davis. Even the discussion of a possible change had most transportation ‘professionals’ and politicians up in arms.
  • Though it did not talk about it, the draft clearly contravenes the intent of the legislature in SB 743, which was to kill LOS.

I hope that there is enough opposition on the transportation issue that the agencies will come back with a better proposal, but if not, the legislature will have to come back to the issue again. If this exemption stands, the state cannot possibly meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets.

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

Driving a stake through LOS

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research has completed the first step in replacing level of service (LOS) with vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as the primary measurement for determining the CEQA impact of development on roadways by drafting the replacement language. This process was specified in In the second step, the Natural Resources Agency is holding a public process to implement the changes, and you can participate. Two meetings have been scheduled:

Sacramento
Date: March 15, 2018
Time: 1:30-4:30pm
Location: California Energy Commission, Rosenfeld Hearing Room
1516 9th Street, Sacramento, CA 95814

Los Angeles
Date: March 14, 2018
Time: 1:30-4:30pm
Location: California Science Center, Annenberg Building, Muses Room
700 Exposition Park Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90037

You can also comment by email at CEQA.Guidelines@resources.ca.gov.

I hope that you will support the changes either in person or by email. The use of LOS has caused incalculable damage to roadways and to livability throughout California. CEQA, originally intended to protect the environment, as been used instead as a weapon to harm the environment and encourage sprawl. Urban infill could rarely meet the requirements of LOS in CEQA, but suburban development almost always could, so what we got is square miles of suburban and exurban sprawl, and very little infill. This change to VMT will at least level the playing field, and may make sprawl more difficult. I don’t know how much opposition there will be, but there are several interests that would like thing to stay just the way they are: engineers who want to build highways instead of transportation systems, greenfield developers who make huge profits while shifting costs to society, and cities and counties (you, Sacramento county, and others) who want to preserve their ability to encourage and subsidize far-flung development. If you like cities, if you like livability, if you like infill, this is one of the most important things that can happen.

Of course, this is only the second step in driving a stake through the heart of LOS. The third step is to ensure that all cities, counties, and regional agencies remove LOS as a tool in planning development and transportation. The legislation and these regulations will prevent exclusive use of LOS by any entity, but it does not preclude use of LOS as a additional criteria. LOS must be eliminated completely. The most important question in transportation and development is what kind of world we want to live in, and though VMT is only a tool for achieving that, it is far far better than the tools we currently use.

For all the details of the Natural Resources Agency process and regulation, see the CEQA page and the notice of rulemaking.