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TOD, CEQA, VMT, LOS, OPR – The Language of SB743, Still Open for Interpretation

Those who attended the March 9th ULI Infrastructure Technology Initiative Council (ITIC) meeting, led by JoAnn Hadfield, PlaceWorks, and including panelists Tony Petros, LSA, Inc. and Tim Paone, Cox, Castle & Nicholson, discussed key issues surrounding SB 743 (Steinberg). The intent of the meeting was to discuss – How will the proposed guidelines for this legislation “that makes changes to how the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) prioritizes projects located in areas served by transit and develops a new approach for analyzing the transportation impacts under CEQA” affect public agencies and the planning and development industry?

According to Paone, under SB 743, the transportation section of an EIR would effectively function as a climate change section. Based on new requirements to analyze Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), if project-related traffic does not result in VMT that is less than existing averages, the traffic impact may be considered significant, thereby requiring preparation of an EIR and a statement of overriding considerations. Moreover, by law, projects must be found to be consistent with a jurisdiction’s General Plan, which often includes specific Level of Service (LOS) traffic standards relating to congestion. Roadway improvement projects (including widening projects) could be required for General Plan consistency (LOS) and inherently result in significant CEQA impacts (increased VMT). “The conflicts are bound to create political and public controversy.”

On the other hand, Petros remarked that the intent of SB 743 is to prepare transportation planning agencies to look critically at how we choose to create transportation infrastructure. “[We] need to look critically at the way we continuously widen roadways in order to improve [Level of Service] LOS…we simply increase demand for driving – where some cities cannot even build wider any longer. We need a ‘regime change’, a different look at how we get around… therefore consider ‘what is the true environmental impact of traffic?’ Exponential growth of roadways is unsustainable and impossible to accommodate.”

Proposed SB 743 implementation guidelines suggest numerous measures to reduce VMT, including providing vanpool commuter alternatives and charging for parking to discourage auto travel (thereby reducing VMT). ULI ITIC Member John Kain, Urban Crossroads, commented that these solutions are ‘very theoretical’ and that the potential of providing active transportation mitigation measures to mitigate increased traffic and truly reduce VMT may be over-estimated. Hadfield commented that she believes that OPR [the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research] intends that making traffic more unbearable for vehicle travel will eventually make active transportation methods the mode that people will choose more often.

Petros says that “projects in the future under SB 743 will have to reduce VMTs. Residential and office development projects will require that they reduce VMTs for new projects, while SB 743 has less stringent requirements for retail space, which is designated as a land use that generates fewer VMTs generally. “OPR is simply picking ‘winners and losers’, which is also indicated in the case of truck traffic from ports, which are not mandated to decrease VMTs as this industry expands.”

Paone considers “what happens if it is more difficult to build roads with SB743 and it makes it longer to get to another destination due to fewer roads being built in the future? This may make projects and mitigation measures more expensive.”

Another ITIC member, Jonathan Borrego, City of Anaheim, added cities such as Anaheim that have LOS standards in their General Plans are unsure if removal of these standards from their General Plans could compromise future Measure M funding. Cities are not necessarily willing to stop road widening. Some certified program level EIRs have mitigation measures that require road widening to accommodate build out and increased density. Furthermore, if reduced VMTs are reliant on bus service, what happens if OCTA decides to cut such service in the future? Changes to bus service are generally beyond a city’s control. Could changes to bus service or other alternative modes of transit compromise the validity of CEQA documents that were reliant on such service?

Ultimately, the sense from the ULI ITIC meeting is that SB 743 will undoubtedly stir the bedrock of Orange County, for better and for worse. There will be dramatic changes to the landscape of communities in Orange County if the proposed CEQA Guidelines to implement SB 743 go into effect as currently written. Cities will feel the push-back by community members on changes to the appearance of their community and roadways traditionally dominated by automobiles. Planned roadway improvements and plans will need changes to be consistent with VMT standards under SB 743. No one really knows if there will be an uptick in litigation, cost, and densification as a result of SB 743. Or, if CEQA could become a more powerful, prescriptive policy tool than ever before, effectively changing the landscape of CEQA practice. But, there is proof that development projects that have implemented measures VMT reduction measures and incorporated active transportation (walking and bicycling) have reinvigorated communities, connecting neighborhoods, and increased the value to the real estate.

The discussion on SB 743 ensues as ULI’s Strike Team takes it up to determine which issues are in ULI’s wheelhouse and how the Institute will provide leadership in the responsible use of land to address them.

Revised Proposal on SB 743 from the State of California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research https://www.opr.ca.gov/docs/Revised_VMT_CEQA_Guidelines_Proposal_January_20_2016.pdf

ULI Publication: Active Transportation and Real Estate: The Next Frontier

By Cayla McDonell, Student Representative, ULI ITIC; JoAnn Hadfield, Interim Vice Chair, ULI ITIC; and Phyllis Tuchmann, Executive Director, ULI OC/IE

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