Changes to CEQA Will Remove Traffic Impacts from Possible Litigation

Richards Tunnel

It took five years to implement SB 743, authored in 2013 by then-Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg.  That bill required traffic analysis to be based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) instead of auto delay, commonly measured by Level of Service (LOS).

Traditionally, the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) guidelines have required that environmental reviews consider “inhibiting the flow of vehicle traffic to be an adverse environmental impact of development.”

However, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote alternative transportation, and encourage sustainable land uses, SB 743 called “for the guidelines to be revised to no longer consider automobile delay a significant impact on the environment.”

The idea is clear – the biggest environmental impact is likely to be statewide greenhouse gas emissions, and this would put CEQA in line with such emission reduction goals.

This will have a huge impact potentially locally, as many of the CEQA suits have contained challenges to traffic study and traffic impact as a primary vehicle for challenging council approvals of projects.  For instance, the original lawsuits against both the Hotel Conference Center and Nishi (2016 version) focused on the traffic study.

A key portion of the 2016 lawsuit alleged that the Nishi EIR “failed to adequately analyze, discuss, and mitigate the project’s traffic impacts.”  Such suits would no longer be permissible under new CEQA law.  It would not appear to impact either the current lawsuit against Nishi or Lincoln40 – at least directly.

However, one of the key factors with the new law is that new projects – things that include bike lanes, offices, and housing – will be exempt from any transportation analysis under CEQA if they fall within half a mile of major traffic, or result in the decrease of driving miles over baseline conditions. 

Both Nishi and Lincoln40 could presumably qualify – though both have already concluded their environmental review process.

From an environmental standpoint, that means that “sprawl projects” would need to be able to both account for and mitigate the impact of creating additional VMT or increasing driving distances.

Furthermore, such guidelines could lead to more incentives for mixed-use projects or work-live projects where people, instead of having to live off-site and commute to work, could live at the location of their jobs.

The Berkeley Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment last October analyzed the new law and noted that, while the adoption of VMT as the metric to determine the significance of transportation impacts under CEQA makes intuitive sense, accounting for VMT impacts “may require innovative approaches to mitigation, such as local or regional “banks” or “exchanges” that allow developers to fund mitigation efforts “not directly related to their projects.”

They write that “while methods for reducing VMT impacts—such as mileage pricing mechanisms, direct investments in new public transit infrastructure, transit access subsidies, and infill development incentives—are well understood, they may be difficult in some cases to implement as mitigation projects directly linked or near to individual developments.”

They believe that “broader and more flexible approaches to mitigation may be necessary.”

One suggestion, as mentioned above, that policy makers are considering is mitigation “banks” or “exchanges.”

In a mitigation bank, “developers would commit funds instead of undertaking specific on-site mitigation projects, and then a local or regional authority could aggregate these funds and deploy them to top-priority mitigation projects throughout the jurisdiction.”

In a mitigation exchange, “developers would be permitted to select from a list of pre-approved mitigation projects throughout the jurisdiction (or propose their own), without needing to mitigate their transportation impacts on-site.

“Both models can be applied at a city, county, regional, and potentially state scale, depending on local development patterns, transportation needs and opportunities, and political will,” they write.

The report recommends that decision makers launching new VMT banks and exchanges consider including:

  • Measures to verify the legitimacy of claimed VMT reductions, as well as their “additionality”;
  • Prioritization of individual mitigation projects, in order to ensure that reductions are achieved as quickly and efficiently;
  • Rigorous backstops to ensure that disadvantaged communities are not negatively impacted by—and ideally can benefit from—the ability of developers to move mitigation off-site; and
  • Demonstration of both a reasonable substantive relationship and financial proportionality between the proposed development and the fee or condition placed on it.

One of the interesting exemptions is Section 15064.3, which would provide that “development projects within one-half mile of transit (i.e., an existing major transit stop or stop along an existing high quality transit corridor) may be presumed to cause a less than significant transportation impact.”

However, due to political pressures and concerns about roadway impacts, “new roadway expansions are exempt from this requirement under the guidelines.”  But it is believed that such roadway projects would still need to undertake VMT analysis anyway, for climate and air quality impacts.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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3 thoughts on “Changes to CEQA Will Remove Traffic Impacts from Possible Litigation”

  1. Craig Ross

    This move takes a huge tool away from those who want to block these projects.  Traffic impacts have always been an easy target.  VMT is the new currency and it’s unfortunate that it took so long, had these rules come into effect sooner, perhaps we could have saved the conference center from litigation.

  2. Alan Miller

    The problem is that most of America is built for cars.  The details are obscure, but much of this may just free up obstacles for developers without decreasing VMTs.  For example, the assumption that a project within a half-mile of a bus stop should be exempt on the idea that residents of the project will walk a half-mile to a bus (that may or may not be going where they want) borders on the absurd. 

    The only way to increase transit and alternative transportation is a massive investment in infrastructure supporting this change in mobility.  You can’t just build projects with little parking and somewhat near a bus stop and expect people to take a still-inconvenient bus.  As Davis is laid out and with low density in the burbs, such investments may make little sense regardless.  In larger cities, such investments, well targeted, could make more of a difference.  Although, LyftUber is causing a decrease in local transit use and a small increase in regional transit use, so the slow bus may be an outdated strategy for mass investment. 

    Again, the notion of people living and working in the same place comes up, but that is largely a fantasy in the real world where people frequently change jobs.  I’m suspicious this law won’t help relieve mobility issues, but only increase population and stress the auto grid further.

    1. Mark West

      Traditional mass transit methods really only work where you have much higher population densities than we have locally. We should be planning our residential developments to support the transit systems that will be in place 20-50 years from now (not just what exists today) with the presumption that those systems will be expansions upon the current “existing major transit stop or stop along an existing high quality transit corridor” (i.e. not just a bus stop). Increasing the population density within a half mile of the train station should be a high priority goal in Davis if we want to be environmentally sustainable. 
      Pull up Google Earth, draw a circle with a 1/2 mile radius centered on the train station and see where we should be building high-density mixed-use projects for the future.

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