In a sweeping new set of recommendations, the Governor's Office of Planning & Research has proposed that traffic congestion no longer be considered a significant environmental impact under the California Environmental Quality Act, and that expanded roadways in congested areas be assessed for possible growth-inducing impacts.

In a draft document released late Wednesday at (PDF document:, OPR's long-awaited white paper recommends amendments to the CEQA Guidelines to replace the "level of service" traffic congestion standard with a "vehicle miles traveled" standard in order to tether CEQA analysis more closely to other state goals, especially the greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals contained in AB 32, the state's climate change law.

Among other things, OPR appears to be trying to make sure the CEQA/traffic tail does not wag the planning dog � as so often appears to happen in California. "[A]ddressing congestion requires public agencies to balance many factors, including fiscal, health, environmental, and other quality of life concerns," OPR wrote. "Such balancing is more appropriate in the planning context where agency decisions typically receive deference." This is in keeping with a line of CEQA cases going back at least to Friends of Goleta Valley in 1990 (, in which the California Supreme Court said that alternatives analysis under CEQA should not be used to re-fight land use decisions made in a general plan.

OPR also recommends that anything above the regional VMT average should be considered a significant impact and that the approach should be phased in, applying to areas around transit stops first and all locations later.

OPR's long-awaited recommendations came five weeks after the deadline called for in SB 743, last year's CEQA reform law, which called upon the agency to examine alternatives to LOS within the CEQA context. If adopted, the recommendations could have widespread implications for how traffic is mitigated under CEQA and the leverage local governments have over developers in dealing with traffic congestion issues. The recommendations will now be subject to public comment -- comments are due October 10 -- before formal amendments to the CEQA Guidelines are made. The document is sure to generate widespread discussion among those involved in planning and development in California.

The OPR paper is sweeping because it challenges head-on the longstanding view that the primary goal of traffic analysis under CEQA is to identify and relieve traffic congestion � or, as the paper calls it, "automobile delay". "By focusing solely on delay, environmental studies typically required projects to build bigger roads and intersections as �mitigation' for traffic impacts," the paper states.

The OPR paper proposes a news section to the CEQA Guidelines, Section 15064.3, which clarifies that "the primary consideration, in an environmental analysis, regarding transportation is the amount and distance that a project might cause people to drive" (italics mine), rather than the amount of automobile delay. Specifically, the proposal calls for a focus on vehicle miles traveled and trip generation.

VMT and the Regional Average

In proposing the shift away from traffic congestion, OPR is essentially proposing a shift toward vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, as the traffic standard to use in CEQA analysis. This is not surprising � OPR had given every indication that this is would be the direction � but this week's recommendations spell out in more detail how OPR imagines this would work.

Although under SB 743 OPR cannot specify mandatory significance thresholds, the paper does make some recommendations about how lead agencies might set those thresholds. Among OPR's recommendations:

Projects that generate greater than the regional average VMT might be considered significant. This standard would likely tie CEQA traffic analysis to the reduction in per-capita VMT called for in each region's Sustainable Communities Strategy under SB 375.

Projects close to transit stops might be considered below the significance threshold.

General plans and specific plans that conform with the region's Sustainable Communities Strategy might be considered below the significance threshold.

Growth-Inducing Impacts

Almost as bold as the proposal to switch to a VMT standard is OPR's suggestion that expanded roadways in congested areas � currently often a mitigation under CEQA � should actually be examined as a possible growth-inducing impact under CEQA.

Relying heavily on a paper prepared for the Air Resources Board by Susan Handy of UC Davis and Marlon Boarnet of USC (see, OPR concluded that "adding new traffic lanes in areas subject to congestion tends to lead to more people driving further distances" and thus induces more travel. Thus, the OPR proposal would actually require lead agencies examine the growth-inducing impacts of adding new roadway capacity in congested areas.

Dealing With Traffic Congestion

Apparently anticipating pushback from local agencies accustomed to using CEQA to gain leverage over developers on traffic improvements, OPR addresses the question of dealing with traffic congestion in several ways:

  • The proposed CEQA Guidelines amendments clarify that local safety impacts are appropriate for CEQA analysis. This would appear to be partly in response to concerns from Caltrans about the dangers of queuing at freeway onramps and offramps. However, traffic safety has not traditionally been subject to CEQA analysis.
  • OPR said that the actual environmental impacts of traffic congestion � including noise and air quality � should continue to be analyzed under CEQA. However, mitigation for these impacts should be crafted to solve the specific noise and air quality problems, not traffic congestion problems.
  • OPR clarified that local governments would still be free to analyze congestion impacts � just not within the context of CEQA. "Many jurisdictions have level of service standards in their general plans, zoning codes, and fee programs," OPR wrote. "These proposed Guidelines would not affect those uses of levels of service." Local governments, however, can be expected to push back with the idea that a local plan or ordinance will not give them as much leverage over developers as a state law like CEQA. In many cases, cities have traffic impact fees and then impose additional traffic mitigations on top of that as a result of traffic analysis under CEQA.


Many cities around the state had expressed concern about a sudden switchover from one standard to another. For this reason, OPR proposed the following phase-in:

  • The new standard will not be retroactive: Approved projects will be subject to mitigations extracted under the old standard.
  • The new standard will only apply to areas around transit stops (as defined in state law).
  • Local governments may apply the standard to other areas on an "opt-in" basis at first.
  • The standard will apply statewide as of January 1, 2016.