Last month, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) released revised guidelines for how to evaluate environmental impacts from transportation. And the new guidelines are really good!
The old system focused on moving cars fast, but that often led to dangerous streets and ever-more cars and traffic. The new guidelines instead focus on how we can reduce the total amount of driving. This is a major milestone in battling climate change and advancing healthy, affordable communities across California.
We’ve been waiting a long time for this moment, which comes at the direction of SB 743 (a law passed in 2013) and was informed by eighteen months of public comment and analysis. We commend the Administration for their excellent proposal. (You can read our full comment letter here.)
But it’s not yet a done deal. Government agencies and business interests are trying to roll back the new guidelines before they’re even final, and we need to show support for them now.
What is LOS, and why is it a problem?
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires analysis of how new projects (road construction, new buildings, etc) impact the environment, and stipulates that project implementation do the least amount of harm. But for decades, CEQA regulations have been interpreted in a twisted way: they reward projects that make cars go faster in the short-term. The indicator, known as Level of Service (LOS), was the simplistic notion that, since cars stopped in traffic gave off more exhaust than cars moving quickly, any projects that reduce car congestion were good for the environment.
As a result, CEQA analysis of transportation projects prioritized investment in car travel at the expense of other ways to get around. Freeway widenings, new roads, and other expensive projects were given a leg up merely because they could improve LOS for cars. Projects that would actually be good for the environment and could increase affordable, non-driving transportation choices – like well-designed infill development new bike lanes, or Bus Rapid Transit – had a harder time.
Meanwhile, projects evaluated with LOS worsened our greenhouse gas emissions and local air quality, and passed exorbitant transportation costs onto households by limiting their options for how to get around to private automobiles.
And so instead of fixing traffic and sparing the environment, LOS actually makes the problem worse.
The solution: VMT over LOS
In 2013, Governor Brown signed SB 743, a law that would change the way we would evaluate projects that impacted the way we get around.
The new guidelines, proposed by OPR, use a much more appropriate and accurate measure of projects’ impacts: the total number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) that a project will produce (or remove).
VMT is a well-established indicator for greenhouse gas emissions. Both the State and regions use VMT to determine the transportation sector’s projected emissions.
This change in CEQA would finally allow the law to recognize that good public transportation, safe streets, and infill developments that get people closer to where they work, study, and play are environmentally beneficial.
It would require road-widening projects to analyze whether alternatives could serve the same goal of providing better mobility and access. This especially makes sense now that there is overwhelming evidence that roadway capacity projects induce additional driving. Omitting “induced demand” leads to underestimating a project’s environmental impact, and overestimating its congestion reduction benefits.
The changes proposed by OPR show that our Governor is truly making efforts to change the way we plan and build our communities in the 21st Century.
Unfortunately, there is already pushback on this long-overdue policy shift. In particular, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) recently sent a letter to OPR asking that many of their projects be exempted from this change, or at least to extend the proposed two-year opt-in period. We are concerned that some legislators may propose an exception for SCAG – and since it’s the largest region in the state, that would be bad news for all of us.
But neither the Governor nor the Legislature should let any projects or regions off the hook. Change can be scary, for sure, and this one will certainly require agencies to adjust to new analyses. But what’s even more frightening is a future where the mounting climate crisis is worsened by environmental laws that continue to favor road-building.
All we’re talking about here is analysis, not outright restrictions on projects. To that extent, we do agree with SCAG’s recommendations that approximately 18 months after the guidelines are implemented they should reconvene stakeholders to report on lessons learned, including how to further improve evaluation.
We’ve been planning for more cars and more emissions for nearly 100 years. As the climate crisis worsens annually, and the state becomes increasingly less affordable, we need to act to adopt these guidelines swiftly and comprehensively. If they get it right, this policy could be another feather in the cap of an Administration whose leadership is showing the world how to succeed in curbing our greenhouse gas emissions and building communities that truly benefit all Californians.
Join TransForm and our partners in standing behind the Administration’s solid proposal to see that the new guidelines are fully adopted, without exception. The comment period is over, but you can let your representatives in Sacramento know that you don’t want any exceptions to the new CEQA guidelines.
Contact Joshua Stark for more information, and check back on this blog for updates in the weeks to come.