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:

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 funding must be weight-based

The California legislature is meeting in special session to discuss sources of funding for transportation (they are on summer break, but will get back to it). The state uses the number $5.7B as the annual shortfall in funds available for maintenance, and these discussion are largely an effort to close that gap. Some of the solutions are: 1) indexing the gas tax so that it doesn’t fall behind (it was last raised in 1990); 2) increasing transportation related fees such as vehicle registration; 3) increasing the tax on specific fuels such as diesel; and 4) basing taxes on VMT (vehicle miles traveled) rather than fuel purchase. Of course there have been other ideas such as redirecting high-speed rail funds (which would be illegal unless legislation and the voter-passed bond are completely undone), and using cap-and-trade funds for highways (also illegal because maintenance and certainly construction would not reduce greenhouse gases), but those right-wing ideas won’t receive consideration by me.


I think it extremely important that all taxes and fees be at least partially based on the weight of the vehicle. The amount of damage caused to roadways and bridges is almost exactly proportional to the weight of the vehicle, and those that weigh more should pay more, at least for the maintenance portion of the transportation budget. If, for example, VMT were used instead of or in addition to fuel tax, one mile by a lightweight passenger vehicle is in no way proportional to one mile by a heavy truck. The tax should instead be a multiplier of VMT and weight, with a strong component of weight. And yes, all vehicles should be charged, including government-owned vehicles, which cause just as much damage to roadways as commercial vehicles. There has been a ballooning of vehicle sizes and weights with the government to match the commercial sector, and this is one way of bringing that under some control. Yes, I realize this means public buses would be paying weight fees, and I think this is appropriate since they do cause significant damage to the roadways. However, public transportation could be more than compensated as we save money on wasteful parts of our transportation system.

Vehicle registration fees are based on the type and price of a vehicle, which means that commercial vehicles are already paying relatively more than less expensive private vehicles, but they are not paying their fair share in relationship to damage caused to roads. It is not just an issue of commercial vehicles, however. Heavy passenger vehicles (you know what I’m talking about) also pay much less than their share of maintenance because the price differential is not as great as the weight differential.

Commercial vehicles do pay a weight fee, which is the sort of thing I’m requesting, but it is not assessed at a high enough level to pay for the damage caused, and at least for now these fees are being diverted to the general treasury rather than being used for maintenance.

Note that I am intentionally ignoring the finer points of sales tax, excise tax, and the arcane fuel tax swap. They are important, but not important to this issue of all users paying their way. It is important to remember that only a portion of transportation funds in the state flows through the federal and state government. Local governments are actually the larger and more significant players. As well, the idea that gas tax pays for roadways is myth, it pays less than half, and has never paid all.

A lot of information about funding, including the chart above, is in the Transportation Funding in California – 2014 document from Caltrans. If this document doesn’t make your head spin, I don’t know what will.

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.”

Fatality trends

The Sacramento Bee today had an article titled Fatal wrecks decline across Sacramento region. I was curious about where the data came from, and asked the author, Phillip Reese. He pointed me to the FARS (Fatality Analysis Reporting System) database. With reluctance, I finally dove in to this database which I’ve long been curious about but afraid of. It is quite hard to use, and it does not allow retrieval of multiple years at once. I compiled a data table of fatalities in the Sacramento region for the last ten years, and the table and graph are below. I used the SACOG region, which includes the six counties of El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba, so my numbers do not exactly match the four county region used by the Sacramento Bee for the map and 170 number.

The chart shows that there is in fact a downward trend in fatalities in the region, though it is not a consistent decline. Part of the reason 2011 looks good is that 2010 was bad.

Let me say, as I’ve said before, that fatality counts are a mis-measure of roadway safety. The best measure is the rate per vehicle mile traveled (VMT). Injuries are just as important as fatalities because they indicate trends in driver behavior, while fatalities reflect the internal safety of motor vehicles for occupants, and the effectiveness of the emergency medical system in responding to crashes. I will look more at the data, including looking specifically at pedestrians and bicyclists, and the rate for all modes. In meanwhile, here is the data and chart, to be taken with a grain of salt.

chart of traffic fatalities in Sacramento region
chart of traffic fatalities in Sacramento region