Setting the record straight on the Governor's CEQA reform proposal

The draft update to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Guidelines on transportation-related environmental impacts is the best kind of policy-making: evidence-based, elegant in its simplicity, and transformative. The draft Guidelines are not perfect, and NRDC is working closely with partners and professionals to help the Office of Planning and Research (OPR) improve them. However, as is often the case, inertia is a powerful force and those who benefit from the status quo are fighting back. There are both a lot of misconceptions and ill-intended rumors out there obscuring how the draft Guidelines will help create better protections for the environment and benefit our communities.  We want to help set the record straight and re-direct the policy discussion back to a fact-based, constructive dialogue. (See OPR’s Fact Sheet.)

Last year, NRDC helped pass SB 743, which established that auto delay—measured by Level of Service (LOS)—no longer makes sense as the main indicator of transportation-related environmental impact.  (Air quality, noise, and safety still remain part of the CEQA analysis of projects.) With months of analysis and public input, OPR has chosen auto travel measured by Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) to replace auto delay (LOS.) Check out my last blog for all the reasons why this is the right choice. The replacement of the LOS metric with VMT corrects unintended consequences of CEQA that were resulting in infill developments and bike lanes being considered environmentally harmful.  With VMT, CEQA’s analysis of transportation impacts will actually be based on environmental effects. Benefits of replacing LOS with VMT include: improved public health; more investment in our downtowns and Main Streets; more transportation options, including biking, walking, and transit; opportunities for increasing housing supply that lowers prices; and relieved pressure on farmland and habitats.

In an effort to clarify misconceptions and stop the ill-intended rumors, let’s clear up the facts about OPR’s draft CEQA Guidelines:

Fact: The Draft Guidelines Eliminate LOS as a Transportation-related Environmental Impact under CEQA

The guidelines read: “A project’s effect on automobile delay does not constitute a significant environmental impact.” This point is made explicitly in the statute. Although LOS has been removed from CEQA, it is currently woven into the local planning process in California through Congestion Management Plans and local General Plans. The draft Guidelines give appropriate deference to local jurisdictions about how they want to revise or maintain LOS in these other policies regulating the planning process, but it has been eliminated as a significant impact under CEQA.  

Fact: The Draft CEQA Guidelines Support the Implementation of SB 375 and Streamline Infill

Replacing LOS with VMT aligns CEQA’s transportation analysis with state goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create multimodal transportation networks. The guidelines directly support implementation of SB 375 and AB32 by shifting the paradigm to encourage walkable developments and transportation projects that offer easy, active ways of getting around. Moreover, the guidelines presume that any land use project within ½ mile of high quality transit has less than significant transportation impacts, a measure that further advantages infill, and is consistent with the framework of SB 375, which gives preferential treatment to projects near transit. I might also ask, if this change didn’t advantage infill, then why did the Council of Infill Builders Support it in this Sac Bee Op-Ed and in this letter?

Fact: Project-Level VMT Models are Available and Exist for Public Consumption

In fact, VMT is already modeled under CEQA as part of GHG analysis, and that is part of the reason OPR chose VMT, rather than an entirely new metric without precedent in CEQA. VMT models have been shown to be much easier to use and take a fraction of the time of a typical LOS model, which actually makes sense. With VMT analysis, we are just talking about the impacts of one project. With LOS, we have to make assumptions about the transportation decisions of residents of a much larger area, and how all of their decisions impact congestion, making LOS prediction far less likely to be accurate. Project-level travel models have existed and been used for many years and numerous examples are listed in the guidelines.   The models are rapidly evolving and will soon be seen as ubiquitous tools available to the public. They can already be downloaded today, in many cases free of charge.

Fact: Suggestions of Mitigation Measures are Just Suggestions. They only apply to Projects with Environmentally Significant Transportation Impacts. And, it is up to the Local, Lead Agency to Apply them.  

Many of the comments opposed to the draft Guidelines focus on the “list of possible mitigation measures for projects that are found to have a significant environmental impact.” The mitigation measures listed are based on the best available peer-reviewed research and are based on the California Air Pollution Control Officer’s Association (CAPCOA) Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Emissions Guide, which is the most comprehensive compilation of peer-reviewed literature we have on how to mitigate VMT. Only projects that have significant environmental impacts will need to mitigate, therefore mitigations measures will not apply to well-designed infill projects. Deference is given to local jurisdictions to determine what mitigation is appropriate—the standard practice in CEQA analysis.

Now, I don't want to appear tone-deaf to concerns, and I don't think OPR does either. Change brings uncertainty, and it is entirely reasonable to ask questions about how this can be implemented as smoothly and efficiently as possible. In acknowledgment of the need to get this right, OPR has extended their comment deadline from October 10th to November 21st, 2014.  

But let’s not let concerns about change cloud the bigger picture. California’s decision to move away from the antiquated, exclusively auto-oriented, unsustainable Level of Service metric is not only precisely the right policy move to support our climate goals, it is also –yet again—a first in the nation, and one which can set a desperately needed model for others.  

The Legislature and Administration deserve praise for their vision and insight in calling for this change. Let’s make it happen.