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:

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.

transportation development impact fee

The City of Sacramento is working on a Transportation Development Impact Fee (TDIF) for the entire city, and with somewhat different requirements for subareas including downtown, river district, and North Natomas. The Sacramento Bee clued me into the proposal with Sacramento asks developers to open wallets to keep city streets from clogging (SacBee 2016-12-08). My initial guess was that this is in response to the failure of Measure B, but this proposal has been worked on since at least August, so that is not the case. The city has a webpage on development impact fees, with two documents specifically about the transportation DIF. I have not had the time to delve into the details, nor do I have any expertise in this area, so these are my initial thoughts.

Continue reading “transportation development impact fee”

comments on Transportation Impacts Analysis

I’ve commented on the California Office of Planning and Research’s (OPR) Updating Transportation Impacts Analysis in the CEQA Guidelines: Preliminary Discussion Draft of Updates to the CEQA Guidelines Implementing Senate Bill 743 (Steinberg, 2013), below. OPR’s page is Developing Alternatives to Level of Service, which includes the downloadable discussion draft. Climate Plan has a good if too brief analysis at Support a stronger law to reduce greenhouse gases and fight climate change! If there are other good resources, please let me know.

The deadline for comments is this Friday, November 21!

  1. I completely agree with removal of level of service analysis and the statement “A project’s effect on automobile delay does not constitute a significant environmental impact.”
  2. I fully support subdivision (b)(1) use of VMT analysis.
  3. I fully support subdivision (b)(2) which states that “For example, projects that are primarily designed to improve safety or operations would not typically be expected to create significant impacts. The same is true of pedestrian, bicycle and transit projects, including those that require reallocation or removal of motor vehicle lanes.”
  4. I fully support Subdivision (b)(4) which states that “a lead agency would be expected to consider vehicle miles traveled that extend beyond the lead agency’s political boundaries.”
  5. Appendix E: Estimating VMT From Roadway Capacity Increasing Projects (of the discussion draft) is useful and has an appropriate level of detail for initial use, but detail and specificity may need to be increased in the future.
  6. The draft uses the terms “major transit stops” and “high quality transit corridors” without defining the terms. What frequency of service, hours of service, or ridership at that particular stop would define a “major transit stop?” What defines a “high quality transit corridor?” Rail? BRT? Regular bus service? Ridership?For example, bus service on 30 or 60 minutes headways, or running only during commute hours or only during the day time, certainly does not qualify as a “high quality transit service.” A bus service sign by the side of the road, without any associated facilities such as seating, shelter, transit signing, trash can, and perhaps bicycle racks, does not qualify as a “major transit stop.”

    Using the terms without more specific definition might encourage some agencies to claim exemption when it really doesn’t apply. As an example, some agencies have claimed that a development is “transit oriented development” when it is not oriented to transit at all but simply located in proximity to transit. I can imagine that some agencies would make similar claims about “major transit stops” and “high quality transit service.”