The state's proposed switch in transportation metrics for analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act came into sharper focus during September, as Office of Planning & Research staff provided more detail – and listened to criticism – in a series of forums around the state.

Responding to a directive in last year's SB 743, OPR released draft CEQA Guidelines in August that would switch transportation analysis under CEQA from the long-used congestion metric, level of service (LOS), to a metric that aligns more with the state's greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

In two road-trip visits to planning audiences and a webinar, OPR staff members clarified some of the draft amendments and began to hint at where they might be willing to back down from the initial proposals. Among other things, here's what OPR staff said:

  • Local governments will still be free to use LOS under their own General Plan policies and police power, but within CEQA analysis VMT will trump General Plan-driven LOS standards.
  • OPR will not dictate a single transportation modeling methodology but, rather, will provide lead agencies with great flexibility about which models to use and how to use them.
  • OPR might be willing to back off of the suggested "regional average VMT" standard for significance under CEQA, especially in the vast Los Angeles region covered by the Southern California Association of Governments.
  • The deadline for comments will be pushed back from October 10 to November 21.
  • The current draft is really a kind of informal "pre-regulatory draft". Once OPR finalizes the guideline amendments, they will be forwarded to the Natural Resources Agency, which will conduct a full rulemaking process with more commenting opportunities.

The August draft had been met with a wide variety of concerns from CEQA practitioners around the state. Local planners and transportation engineers expressed considerable fear that they would not be able to use CEQA's leverage to extract traffic improvements as mitigations. In addition, the real estate law firm of Holland & Knight responded to a list of potential mitigation measures by characterizing it as an impermissible attempt to expand CEQA law by pushing economic and social policies such as affordable housing near transit. (See

Comments on the draft are due by November 21 to Some of the details released at the September 25 webinar are in a new FAQ document posted at and otherwise on the general OPR SB 743 site at

At all the forums, OPR's Senior Planner Chris Ganson and Counsel Chris Calfee went out of their way to explain the reasoning behind the recommendation to back VMT as the new metric. In San Diego, Ganson said LOS as a general standard often focuses on the wrong things – moving vehicles instead of people, for example, and solving the program of localized congestion around a particular project without considering the overall impact on the transportation system. "The scale of analysis is too small," he said. "Oftentimes, you relieve a bottleneck and end up with a worse bottleneck downstream, which worsens the whole situation." In other words, he said: "All you did was you moved impact outside of your scope of analysis to somewhere else."

Discussing multi-modal level of service – which has often been identified as a possible alternative to vehicle level of service – Ganson said it has many of the same defects as vehicle level of service. "There are a lot of situations in which inserting multimodal LOS could be quite useful," he said. "We found CEQA not to be one of them because it creates some of the same perverse incentives – in infill development it's again going to trigger impacts on transit, bicycling, ped facilities. It looks at crowding and says adding more people is bad but of course what we want is to add more people."

Ganson reiterated that even if congestion itself would not be considered a significant impact, the new guidelines would continue to permit actual environmental impacts of congestion – air quality, for example – to be analyzed, and would also permit analysis of safety concerns, a matter of interest to Caltrans in particular.

General Plan LOS Will Be Trumped – But Police Power Won't

At a forum in San Diego in mid-September (see, Calfee indicated that General Plan congestion standards won't be counted as significant under CEQA. "Once the guidelines are adopted, then those measures can't be the basis of a significance finding under CEQA," he said. He later indicated that it may be necessary to revise the CEQA checklist to reflect this viewpoint.

At the same time, Calfee emphasized: "We are only making changes to the CEQA analysis. Local General Plan policies, zoning codes, things like that, those remain in place. This does not interfere with local police power. Local agencies get to keep their impact fees, their planning processes, as otherwise." Nevertheless, the general impression conveyed by OPR is that the CEQA Guidelines amendments are likely to drive local government policies away from congestion and toward VMT as a standard.

Speaking alongside Ganson and Calfee at the state American Planning Association (APA) convention in Anaheim a few days later, Fehr & Peers' Ron Milam said that for traffic engineers taking LOS out of CEQA is like "playing golf while taking our seven-iron away."

But he added that lead agencies must take a much broader view about how transportation analysis will be changing under CEQA. "We've become dependent on LOS as a way to get ad-hoc mitigation," he added. "Traditionally we want to look through the one lens, LOS, which is largely a traffic operations metric. … What's happened with 743, is we're starting to balance the playing field by introducing accessibility, access to goods and services. Access is not a traffic operations metric … It's helping understand how efficient our networks are."

Milam and Calfee both emphasized once again that local governments can still use their police power and their general plan policies to extract increases in roadway capacity from developers.

Will Traffic Congestion Mitigations Become Impacts Instead?

When Ganson and Calfee spoke at the APA convention, the discussion revolved around the question of induced travel created by additional highway capacity – and whether, under CEQA, additional capacity might actually wind up creating a significant impact, rather than serving as mitigation. Under the LOS standard, congestion can be a significant impact and so therefore additional capacity can be a mitigation. But under the OPR proposal, congestion can't be considered a significant impact, while big increases in VMT can be. So, if additional lanes mean free-flowing traffic, and freeflowing traffic induces travel, VMT might go up – and trigger a significance threshold under CEQA.

One audience member posed this question: If the Regional Transportation Plan and the Sustainable Communities Strategy has identified the need for a widened road – and the plan-level environmental impact report is done – will project-level environmental review have to look at induced travel?

"The simple answer," Milam said, "is yes." But both he and the OPR representatives emphasized that a VMT metric might drive lead agencies in the direction of adding either density or a greater mix of land uses as a mitigation measure to drive VMT down – and this may have some effect on congestion as well.

Regional Average VMT As Significance Threshold

On the webinar Calfee implied willingness to change the draft's proposed approach to assessing projects' VMT levels by relating them to regional average VMTs. That approach has been criticized as difficult to apply fairly to local areas that don't match the averages taken across large regional government areas. (See prior discussion at

He said OPR "would really appreciate your input on things like, what might be the appropriate recommendation for a threshold? We started out with regional average but we know others have some good ideas as well so please submit those." He said the staff knew the safety discussion needed to be further refined, "and also, give us your thoughts on whether the timing that we set out is appropriate."

(On the webinar recording, which is available at, these key comments show up around Minute 41. Note this is a different, more extended recording than the webinar recording shown at, which stops just past Minute 38.)

Lots of Discretion on Methodology

Throughout September, both Ganson and Calfee emphasized that it would be permissible, and in fact important, for local lead agencies to choose VMT measurement tools that have sensitivity to different relevant factors. He said standardized measurements may work well in some circumstances but will "miss a big part of the picture in other circumstances."

At the state APA, Fred Dock, Transportation Director for the city of Pasadena, said his office had already begun calculating VMT on a citywide level. He wasn't certain, however, how the work already done in Pasadena might fit in with the regional-average standard proposed under SB 743 in the guidelines proposed this August by the Office of Planning and Research. (See and

OPR's proposed guidelines document links directly to several different Web pages offering "sketch model" interactive worksheets to calculate VMT. (See, Appendix F, starting Page 36.) The panelists said officials and project proponents needed to understand better which calculation methods would be accurate and respected enough to survive legal challenges – and public agencies would need budgets to put staff time into research on the subject.

Former SANDAG Planning Director Bob Leiter recommended a staff report by Peter Imhof of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) on ways regional differences might affect the proposed SB 743 VMT guidelines. The report appears as an attachment to a recent SBCAG advisory committee agenda at

Leiter and SACOG's Kirk Trost thought it would be helpful to create provisional VMT guidelines and test them out in a feedback process before enforcing definite rules.

Will Infill Projects That Don't Reduce VMT Be Behind the 8-Ball?

At the September 25 presentation, the OPR team said the mitigation measures in question were optional suggestions derived from a list prepared by the California Air Pollution Conrol Officers' Association.

More recently, a widely posted Sacramento Business Journal commentary by writer Allen Young at quoted Holland & Knight's Jennifer Hernandez as claiming that sponsors of infill projects would be pushed by the new rules to justify projects that did not minimize vehicle trips.

Essentially, the concern is that the new guidelines will force projects into land-use changes to lower VMT – for example, adding housing to a commercial project or a child-care center to a mixed-use project. Ganson and Calfee emphasized over and over again that these are mere examples, though at the APA conference Milam noted that examples endorsed by OPR may be interpreted as significance thresholds by the courts.

When Will The New Guidelines Take Effect?

On the date for full statewide implementation – as distinct from initial implementation in transit-rich areas, or voluntary adoption where local agencies prefer the new metric – Calfee said at the webinar, "We put as a placeholder January 1, 2016, but we know that that time period is likely to move, given how long the rulemaking process is likely to take." Separately he reassured listeners that the current discussion process was "pre-regulatory," to be followed by a formal rulemaking via the state Natural Resources Agency.