How did sustainable communities fare this leg. session in CA? Turns out, pretty well.

UPDATE (9/27/2013): Governor Brown has just signed SB 743 into law.

“From the standpoint of sustainable transportation, this is the most significant new provision to pass in California since AB 32 and SB 375.”                                                                                                                        - Jeff Tumlin, Principal, Nelson\Nygaard

NRDC worked on several bills this California legislative session to support our goals of creating sustainable communities with transportation choices and affordable housing—most notably, updating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) while keeping its environmental core – clean air, clean water, toxic cleanup, transparency, analysis and mitigation – intact. Here’s a rundown of how some of the major issues played out amidst the flurry of end of session activity.

NRDC and our environmental and labor allies along with infill builders and sustainable community advocates focused on Senator Steinberg’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Modernization Act (SB 731), with the goal of aligning CEQA more closely with state climate change and sustainable community goals.  As part of that overall effort, we examined the way traffic is analyzed and measured under CEQA and a consensus emerged that common practice was leading to mitigations of questionable environmental benefit. LOS stands for level of service, and it’s a way of measuring traffic that has been at the center of transportation impact analysis under CEQA for decades.  Senator Steinberg summarized the issue at the Assembly Local Government Committee hearing late Wednesday night September 11th, “there is nearly uniform consensus that LOS has to go.” The problem with LOS, eloquently summarized in a Sac Bee Op-Ed from the Council of Infill Builders, is that it gives us all the wrong answers.

Put most plainly, using LOS as the primary mode of analyzing a project’s transportation impacts under CEQA has led to the wrong kind of outcomes. Instead of looking at real environmental impacts, like pollution and noise, LOS instead looks at traffic delay.  And since CEQA sensibly requires projects to mitigate their impacts, LOS has led projects to find ways to make it easier for cars to get around, with more and wider roads, frequently at the expense of transit, biking and walking, and ultimately environmental quality. 

Ironically, LOS can make widening roads look good for the environment, as it speeds up traffic and reduces delay, even though road widening invites more driving, more traffic, and more pollution, in a vicious anti-environmental cycle. LOS also perversely makes putting in a bike lane, a bus only lane, or a pedestrian crosswalk look bad for the environment, because these changes may slow down cars.

It’s no wonder LOS has been called “The Transportation Planning Rule Every City Should Reform.”

LOS also makes infill development more expensive, putting development in already busy areas at a competitive disadvantage to sprawl. We know new residents of infill development near transit drive significantly fewer miles (and generate significantly less pollution) than the residents of far-flung suburban developments.  Yet using LOS requires infill to pay for costly “mitigations” that make infill even more expensive, hampering efforts to meet growing demand for housing in urban areas, not to mention our environmental goals. 

Unfortunately by the end of the legislative session opposition to SB 731 from business interests intent on crippling CEQA’s environmental core was cresting. Despite growing support, some development interests remained opposed, believing that the bill “didn’t go far enough” in reforming (or gutting, depending on your point of view) CEQA. Nevertheless, Senator Steinberg plucked the LOS provisions from SB 731 and inserted them into another bill, SB 743, a bill to help keep the Sacramento Kings in Sacramento. The LOS provisions direct the Office of Planning and Research to recommend a new approach to analyzing transportation impacts under CEQA—one more capable of promoting reduced greenhouse gas emissions, multimodal transportation networks and a diversity of land uses.

The Senator also added another CEQA related provision to SB 743—related to specific plans. These amendments expanded CEQA’s existing specific plan exemption from applying only to residential projects to also include mixed-use as well as employment center projects. These changes will only apply in transit priority areas, explicitly building on and reinforcing the architecture established by SB 375. They will apply only to a specific plan for which environmental review has been completed, and only to projects that are consistent with a Sustainable Communities Strategy—a plan that the region has adopted to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions through smarter land use and transportation planning.  The final bill also specifies that for infill projects in transit priority areas, parking and aesthetics will not be considered significant impacts.

While it remains to be seen how these provisions will play out, many are concerned that the expansion of the specific plan exemption is a slippery slope towards exempting even more projects from environmental review.  On the other hand, these changes could help to incentivize growth in transit priority areas—which is exactly what the state wants from SB 375 and the regions want from their Sustainable Communities Strategies.  

We think these changes have the potential to shape California’s future in a big way. But don’t take our word for it. Below are some reactions to the late amendments to SB 743 from some sustainable planning thought leaders throughout California.

“To cut traffic in Kern County, we're considering strategies that give people an array of travel choices, providing alternatives to driving. By looking at a full range of travel solutions, we can save lots of money, and perhaps even postpone the need to build and maintain a new beltway system. A change in how traffic is analyzed that takes into account the full range of travel options near high quality transit service, combined with these new strategies could help extend the life of our existing transportation system, and free up resources to fix and finish what we have."                                                                                                            -Rob Ball, Planning Director, Kern Council of Governments.

"The Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) has recognized for some time that in the most urbanized parts of Los Angeles, we cannot build our way out of congestion.  For this reason, we have been investigating non car-centric metrics along with multi-modal transportation solutions to provide greater choice in mobility options."                            - Jay Kim, Traffic Engineer, Los Angeles Department of Transportation

“What I’m telling my staff is, start mapping this stuff. It’s clear that the state is sending us a message that CEQA is starting to look a whole lot different in infill and transit priority areas. I think we want to take advantage of these changes.”                                                                                                         - Bill Fulton, Planning Director, City of San Diego

“I have been an outspoken critic of CEQA for the barriers it puts up to the creation of sustainable cities. The LOS and specific plan changes in Steinberg’s bill are a real step forward for the cities of California, as we try to become more walkable and focus growth around transit. This is the kind of thinking we will need to embrace as a state if we want to make SB 375, and the planning intent behind it, a reality.” -Gabriel Metcalf, Executive Director, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR)

Of course, the legislative practice of end of session quick changes leaves much to be desired from a fair public process standpoint. But considering what we were facing at the end of session last year—a total gut of CEQA from then-Senator-now-Chevron employee Michael Rubio—I think we managed to emerge from this session with the core components of CEQA intact, and with some promising CEQA updates that may just advance our sustainable communities agenda. Not too bad.

This post was co-written by Justin Horner, Policy Analyst with NRDC.