OPR Releases Update to CEQA Guidelines

…on Evaluating Transportation Impacts in CEQA

Implementing Senate Bill 743

OPR’s latest update to the guidelines for implementing SB 743 includes a few substantial changes.  Probably the biggest change is moving much of the technical content out of the CEQA Guidelines and into a new technical advisory.  The technical advisory is not regulatory, so it does not carry the force of law.  Practitioners can consider this guidance material as advisory suggestions.  Our assessment is that it provides a starting point for how to think about potential VMT analysis methods, thresholds, safety analysis, and mitigation approaches.

So what remains the same?

  • OPR continues to recommend VMT as the most appropriate measure of transportation impacts
  • OPR continues to recommend that VMT should be used across the State
  • Development projects that locate within one-half mile of either an existing major transit stop or a stop along an existing high quality transit corridor generally may be considered to have a less than significant transportation impact.
  • Transit, bike and pedestrian projects should still be presumed to have a less than significant transportation impact
  • Induced travel effects of roadway capacity expansion projects are still required to be analyzed
  • Implementation of SB 743 should be phased in over time

What changed from the preliminary discussion draft?

  • Technical guidance has been moved to a Technical Advisory section
    – Intended to clarify what is a requirement vs. recommendation
    – Expanded discussion and framework for how lead agencies should evaluate safety impacts
  • Thresholds have been refined and are now aligned with the State’s climate policies
    – “… OPR finds, absent any more project-specific information to the contrary, that VMT fifteen percent below that of     existing development may be a reasonable threshold…”
    – Threshold suggestions recognize the diversity of communities across the State
    – Threshold suggestions allow for quick screening of smaller projects
    – Transit Oriented Development (TOD) projects still presumed to be LTS
    – New threshold for transportation projects where an increase in excess of two million VMT per year is considered a significant impact
  • Procedures remain optional for a 2-year opt-in period
    – Provides grace period for agencies to learn new methodologies
  • Access to trip length and VMT estimates from the California Statewide Passenger Travel Demand Model. Users of this data should note that this is a statewide model that has not been calibrated and validated for local area applications consistent with the expectations set forth in the modeling guidance contained in the 2010 California Regional Transportation Guidelines (see excerpt below).  More refined data is available through regional MPO models.  Other reliable sources of trip length or VMT data include the California Household Travel Survey (CHTS) and mobile device data from vendors such as StreetLight.

MPOBlurb

Notes on the bold and italicized items above:

The new threshold for land use projects of achieving a 15 percent reduction in VMT per capita compared to existing conditions is more aligned with State GHG reduction objectives for land use and transportation.  A key question though will be how to establish the ‘existing’ value since it will always be a moving target tied to each project’s specific baseline time period.  As to the threshold for transportation projects, lead agencies should review the substantial evidence contained in the Technical Advisory explanation about how this threshold was developed.  Lead agencies still have discretion to develop their own threshold and it may be appropriate to consider a more specific methodology for their region, working in connection with their MPO.

Another important aspect of the technical guidance is that practitioners should be careful to ensure that the VMT estimates being used for transportation impacts analysis account for as much of the project VMT as is reasonable and should avoid using methods that result in trips being truncated (i.e., a project located at the edge of travel forecasting model where trips leaving the model boundary do not reflect accurate trip lengths to the ultimate destination).  The goal should be to capture as much of the project vehicle travel as is reasonable.  This same approach should also be used for GHG and energy sections of the environmental document.  Air pollution analysis may use different boundaries and methods for VMT estimation because of rules and regulations associated with air districts.  Hence, not all VMT is equal for environmental analysis purposes.