While many in the development community were hopeful that 2013 would be a year of major CEQA reforms, in the end the state made more modest revisions to the law. Led by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed SB 743 (Chap 386, Stats 2013). This bill built upon Steinberg's sweeping 2008 legislation, SB 375, by implementing the following changes to CEQA:
Transit Priority Projects are defined under existing law to include residential, employment and mixed use projects located within ½ mile of a light rail station or high frequency bus stop. Projects in these areas are already entitled to certain advantages under SB 375, which established a new CEQA document known as a "Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment" (SCEA) for qualifying Transit Priority Projects as an alternative to a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) or Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
Why the Proposed Changes to the CEQA Guidelines Are Needed
Due to the nature of infill development, the proponents of Transit Priority Projects often find that existing traffic patterns reflect "gridlock" conditions (or LOS "F"). However, because such projects encourage transit ridership, the LOS standard (which typically only measures vehicle delay) could ignore the actual benefits that such developments may have for the surrounding transportation network, particularly by encouraging alternative modes of transportation. Mitigation to improve LOS is also very costly and can be infeasible in locations where existing development precludes roadway widening. Moreover, expanding roadway capacity in some locations may induce greater vehicle use, thereby working against goals of reducing vehicle emissions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the proponents of Transit Priority Projects, a SCEA is sometimes not available where a transit priority project will add vehicle trips to an existing LOS F condition.
SB 743 seeks to improve the use of the SCEA and encourage development of transit priority areas by eliminating aesthetics and parking from the impact areas that must be considered during the environmental review of such projects. The law also directs OPR to develop alternative methodology to the LOS standard for evaluating a Transit Priority Project's impact to the transportation system. Such an alternative methodology may consider alternatives to LOS, such as, but not limited to, "vehicle miles traveled, vehicle miles traveled per capita, automobile trip generation rates, or automobile trips generated." (Pub. Res. Code § 21099 subd. (b)(1).) The alternative methodology "shall promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks, and a diversity of land uses." (Ibid.) Once the new Guidelines take effect, impacts related solely to vehicle delay (as measured by LOS) would no longer be considered significant environmental effects under CEQA for qualifying Transit Priority Projects. However, air quality, noise and safety effects related to vehicle use will continue to be analyzed under CEQA.
Help for Projects Other than "Transit Priority Projects"
Fortunately, the Legislature intended for SB 743 to apply broadly, and did not confine all of its benefits to Transit Priority Projects. While the law directs OPR to develop revisions to the CEQA Guidelines to apply to Transit Priority Areas (where such projects are found), the law also authorizes OPR to "establish alternative metrics to the metrics used for traffic levels of service for transportation impacts outside transit priority areas." (Id. at subd. (c)(1).) An earlier Steinberg bill, SB 731, would have limited transportation relief to transit priority areas. In its approval of SB 743, the Legislature made it clear that improvements to the CEQA guidelines were needed to achieve statewide goals. In response, OPR has pledged to explore alternative transportation metrics to be applied to projects statewide.
However, OPR is not limiting its update to the CEQA Guidelines to the reforms established by SB 743. Instead the agency will be giving the GEQA Guidelines a thorough and comprehensive update, possibly covering a wide range of topics. These potential topics will be covered in a future article.
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