California May Be Rethinking (Sort Of) New Transportation Standards Under CEQA

I’ve blogged before about SB 743, a significant reform to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that will change how transportation analyses are done. Gone is the dreaded “level of service” standard, which rewarded bad sprawl projects with new auto lanes while penalizing inill projects for causing too much on-site congestion.

Now it looks like the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) may be rethinking two aspects of the new proposed implementing guidelines. At a recent forum covered by the California Planning and Development Report, OPR leads Chris Calfee and Chris Ganson (collectively known as the “Chris’s” — I don’t want to write anything that looks like “crises”), stated a willingness to change two aspects of the guidelines. First, they might delay the statewide phase-in of the guidelines, currently proposed for 2016, while transit oriented areas would still go “live” with the new rules right away. Second, they may tighten down the metric of “regional vehicle miles traveled (VMT),” in which projects in areas below that threshold might be exempt from transportation analysis under CEQA. As CP&DR reports:

[Calfee] said OPR “would really appreciate your input on things like, what might be the appropriate recommendation for a threshold? We started out with regional average but we know others have some good ideas as well so please submit those.” He said the staff knew the safety discussion needed to be further refined, “and also, give us your thoughts on whether the timing that we set out is appropriate.”

Both changes sound basically reasonable to me, if indeed OPR pursues them. On the statewide phase-in, I’d love to see it happen sooner rather than later. But the way the timing is going, the guidelines won’t be adopted until late 2015 anyway. So pushing back the statewide version a few months or even a year would give more jurisdictions time and possibly lessen any political blowback.

On the regional VMT average, some environmentalists and others feel that exempting projects in areas below regional average VMT is too weak. For example, in the Southern California region, the regional average covers a massive area of widely varying urbanity/sprawl. All of urban Los Angeles, for example, might qualify as below the regional average, compared to the Mojave Desert and Inland Empire. So rethinking and tightening this standard would be beneficial, provided we don’t lose the elegancy and simplicity of the simple VMT metric and the bright line, wherever it may fall.

Overall, it’s quite likely that the guidelines will change significantly from what is proposed now, if history is any guide. But let’s hope OPR only strengthens them in the face of stakeholder input, rather than weaken them.


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