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Dept of Transportation

New CEQA guidelines for traffic impacts make assessment meaningless

As anyone knows, during normal times, traffic is one of the top concerns of Bay Area residents. Prior to the current, unprecedented economic lockdown, local traffic was intolerable during rush hour--something it will likely become again, once the pandemic has passed.

It is generally acknowledged that traffic jams have a direct relationship to air pollution from all those idling and bumper to bumper vehicles. And until we live in a fully electric or hydrogen powered world, this will remain the case.

One of the current methods of mitigating against this, as it relates to new real estate development, include assessing the impacts of the traffic that a zoning change or a new project will add to adjacent roads and how that will effect congestion at intersections. That method is called "Level of Service" (LOS) and it's analyzed by doing traffic counts and recording congestion times.

It's a method that has served us well for decades. California’s public policy makers, however, disagree and have made changes to CEQA Guidelines to take this issue in an entirely new direction.

In 2013, the California legislature enthusiastically passed Senate Bill 743 (both McGuire and Levine were on board). Among other things, this legislation required that the California State Office of Planning and Research issue and adopt new CEQA Guidelines for assessing the environmental impacts of traffic.

What the legislation basically said was that traffic congestion would no longer be considered a significant impact under CEQA and therefore need not be assessed at all if the "project" involves "land use" (i.e., zoning) or "transportation" (involves highways or any other system that Caltrans has some jurisdiction over).

The new way of considering traffic congestion impacts is called "vehicle miles traveled" (VMT).

The paradoxical rationale for this change to VMT was supposedly to better align CEQA analysis the State’s public policy goals of “reducing” greenhouse gas emissions and traffic-related air pollution in order to promote “multimodal transportation networks” (translation: get rid of cars) and “a diversity of land uses” (translation: high density development). It presupposes that local planners can really know what those metrics will be, now or in the future, for any particular type of land use or development (in the real world, VMT data that may exist varies widely depending on location, geography, demographics, economic vitality, level of urbanization, etc.).

Another stated goal was for "traffic studies" to no longer be able to use LOS data to support road widening and building new freeways (both considered cardinal sins by current planning doctrine). It seeks to force the use of essentially non-existent public transportation and "walkability," whatever that means.

As a result of SB 743, as of July 1, 2020, CEQA “lead agencies” (your city) are now supposed to analyze a project’s transportation impacts using VMT.

In theory, VMT measures the “per capita number of car trips generated by a project” and estimates the distances cars will travel to and from a project, regardless of the traffic congestion it may or may not cause. However, this is, as a practical matter, an unquantifiable guesstimate based on pretty much whatever anyone wants to believe is the case (i.e., planning staff, developers, and politicians with an agenda).

Very broad statistics do exist (the only studies considered to support SB 743) for a typical adult's VMT in a year, but none of those can be realistically applied to development on a particular land parcel in a particular town anywhere in the state.

VMT is very different from the way most agencies presently assess impacts, which, as I said, is to rate the LOS of the various intersections impacted by a new project, based on monitoring existing congestion levels at those intersections and estimating the number of additional vehicles that the project will generate. The LOS scale grades from “A” (best - less than 10 second delays) to “F” (dysfunctional - more than 80 second delays).

Under an LOS assessment, these vehicle counts are relatively accurate because they are based on decades of statistics and they are also code based. For example, a ten unit apartment building is required to have a certain number of parking spaces per unit and data on how much traffic different types of uses generate per unit or per square foot (residential, retail, commercial, industrial, etc.) is well documented, locally. But, VMT turns the definition of "congestion" from being an objective measurement to a subjective opinion, grounded only in what is or is not politically correct at any given time.

After all, who gets to decide what additional percentage of traffic is "too much?"

High density developers, housing advocates, and the usual cast of characters in the State Legislature are gushing about this change to VMT. They know that under, VMT “traffic,” as an impact, will be more easily manipulated to match their public policy goals.

Or, as the law firm of Perkins Coie notes,

“Under the existing framework of congestion-based analysis using LOS, infill and transit-oriented development is often discouraged because such projects are in areas of existing traffic congestion.”

The fact that VMT lacks any commonsense relationship to real world experience apparently doesn’t matter, but I suppose that’s the whole point.

Ed Yates, a prominent SF Bay Area environmental attorney, explains it this way.

“Developers complained for years about the Level of Service criteria because it focused on intersections and they complained that any growth could exacerbate intersection congestion. Which, of course, is something the public would want to know about and could understand.

“VMT, however, does not tell the lay person that [an intersection] will become more congested but instead provides a snapshot of the development's percentage contribution to overall traffic. So, instead of a finding that [their nearby intersection] will go from the already bad LOS C to a very bad D, now the finding is that the new development will add .9% to the total VMT.

“What does that latter figure really mean to the public? Not much, because who cares what the development project's percentage of historic traffic will be? What people want to know is do they have to wait longer and how much. And now, they may never know.”

Or as traffic expert Robert Harrison commented,

"It appears VMT offers a great opportunity for "fudging" the numbers on project impacts, reducing the possibility of adding transportation capacity and improving the potential for new development to be approved."

But it turns out that "fudging" is the least of VMT's flaws. The truth is that the mathematics of VMT rewards more and more traffic congestion, while masking the real world impacts.

As an area's roads become more and more congested, the VMT traffic impacts that any particular new project contributes decreases as a percentage of the overall impacts.

Consider this.

If the VMT for development in a particular area is presently 10,000, and a new project produces another 500 VMT, that's an additional 5% impact. But if the VMT is then 10,500 and an identical new project producing another 500 VMT is added, that's only an additional 4.75% impact -- indicating it has less impact than the first project, even though its actual impact is identical.

Theoretically, as the area's real traffic congestion reaches total gridlock 24/7, the addition of yet another project approaches zero percent impact.

Or as Michael Graf, another seasoned CEQA attorney we work with, put it,

“It seems that in the name of fighting climate change, officials appear pretty ready to sentence those left in the urban areas to a miserable existence.”


Bob Silvestri is a Mill Valley resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area. Please consider DONATING TO CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of California residents.