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SB 743: as comment deadline nears, the roadshow comes home

Martha Bridegam on
Nov 10, 2014

Officials with the Office of Planning and Research (OPR) have created a "new normal" baseline for discussing possible changes to CEQA transportation metrics under SB 743. They've succeeded pretty much by having the stamina to keep discussing their August 6 preliminary discussion draft. Over. And over. And over. For three months.

In an extended public workshopping process the key OPR drafters -- Chris Calfee and Chris Ganson -- have spoken before many different California groups to explain their August draft, often appearing with leading experts and spokespeople who raise challenging questions about it. Bill Fulton was already referring to "The SB 743 roadshow" in mid-September. (See http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3576.) Now in late fall, with public comments on the draft due November 21, the roadshow has returned, well-tested, to Sacramento.

Those appearances didn't build complete agreement on CEQA transportation metrics -- nothing could -- but through public debates and informal consultations, it appears OPR has built up a corps of influential loyal-opposition advisor/critics who are at least willing to keep arguing constructively and maybe willing to edge toward consensus.

Two chances to take SB 743 debate's temperature

Two panel discussions last week showed there's still plenty of disagreement on details, but most of the new conversation is happening within a frame established by OPR: how best to apply a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) standard in California CEQA analysis without undue kerfuffles or litigation.

An OPR-sponsored panel discussion November 3 brought together many of the leading figures in the SB 743 debate to argue and clarify the outstanding dilemmas. (Video is online at http://www.opr.ca.gov/s_sb743.php.)

(The next day, in a panel discussion at the University of San Francisco, three of the speakers who had argued most fiercely in published essays in August -- Jennifer Hernandez, Ethan Elkind and Amanda Eaken -- made clear that not everyone has bought into the OPR approach, though they did manage to agree on some common ground. See our separate coverage at http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3622.)

OPR's loyal opposition on display


At the November 3 panel discussion, the two Chris's began with their now-familiar OPR presentation on the drawbacks of LOS congestion analysis and arguments for choices in the August 6 discussion draft. (For prior CP&DR coverage of this evolving presentation see http://www.cp-dr.com/search/articles/node-opr.)

The presentation lays out the SB 743 mandate to measure transportation impacts by a standard other than Level of Service (LOS) congestion ratings, and why OPR favors a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) standard to replace it -- that is, a rule based on the number and length of vehicle trips a project causes, not the amount of delay it may cause at any given intersection. It explains the rationales for disputed parts of the proposal: the proposed "no significant impact" presumptions for projects within half a mile of good transit; the recommendation of regional average VMT as the threshold of significance for individual projects; possible interactions between the VMT standard for transportation impact purposes and continuing LOS-based planning rules for purposes such as safety and air quality.

As he frequently has, Calfee emphasized local agencies' authority to pick their own methodologies for estimating VMT, and he described many of the draft's practical suggestions for thresholds and mitigations as being recommendations, not hard requirements. Though in explaining local lead agencies' authority to choose their own methodologies, Calfee warned attorneys that the assumptions underlying transportation studies are best included in the administrative record.

Calfee repeated his late-September comment that the January 1, 2016 date projected in the August draft for full implementation was "a placeholder" and "probably too quick" so "I would imagine that that date may change."

And he had new hints on the rulemaking timetable: he said if the next proposal draft contained major changes, OPR might send it out for further public review, but when "we're comfortable with the proposal" it would go out to the Natural Resources Agency to start a formal rulemaking process, so he expected "that we won't come to resolution on this until some time in 2015."

The Kool-Aid

When Caltrans Deputy Secretary Kate White, acting as moderator, opened the discussion to panelists, independent planner Terrell Watt announced, "I think we're all up here on the panel because we've drunk the Kool-Aid, we're on the right path, we need to get constructive, roll up our sleeves, and figure out [the best guidelines]."

The only outright demurrer to that came politely from Jim Moose, partner with the firm of Remy Moose Manley. "I'm not sure whether drinking the Kool-Aid was a prerequisite for being invited," he said, suggesting he hadn't entirely been converted to the OPR draft. He had a few concerns, including that ordinary people dislike congestion, rural county officials dislike taking instructions from "urban liberal elites," and a reduction in CEQA litigation threats over LOS issues might reduce the "fear factor" that could motivate his clients to cooperate with other jurisdictions on reducing congestion.

The rest of the panel was a dream team of CEQA transportation expertise: Jeffrey Tumlin, the respected Nelson/Nygaard transportation specialist; Eric Ruehr, chair of the Institute of Transportation Engineers' SB 743 task force; Ron Milam, director of technical development with Fehr and Peers and an expert on VMT analysis; Viktoriya Wise, San Francisco Planning's lead on VMT analysis; Curt Johansen of the Council of Infill Builders, and Amanda Eaken of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who frequently invokes her role as a key figure in shaping SB 743 in the first place.

The panel did raise criticisms and uncertainties. Among them:

- Concerns for rural VMT analyses, about incentives for transit in small towns, and about oppositional attitudes of rural planners and developers toward instructions from central government.

- A question whether projects that don't meet the threshold of current regional VMT average would or should get built anyway via mitigations or statements of overriding considerations.

- Two objections Eaken has been making since August: First, that it's too lenient to grant a "less than significant impact" presumption to projects within half a mile of good transit because mere presence near transit doesn't guarantee transit-oriented design. Second, that when projects are analyzed individually, the threshold of significance could be stricter than OPR's suggested rule to generate less than the existing regional average VMT. Eaken argued projects should do better to reach 2050 climate protection goals. (Wise said San Francisco was already using stricter thresholds, and would want to continue doing so, in part "to accommodate all the infill growth that we are taking."

- Calls for consistency between CEQA VMT rules and other requirements, including Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS) and Air Resources Board pollution reduction targets.

- On thresholds of significance -- an area where Calfee has already indicated willingness to change the draft (http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3582), Tumlin suggested projects should be considered acceptable if they fell 15% below any one of four standards: the expected average VMT for new development in municipal general plans; the regional average; Air Resources Board goals, or the local SCS. He suggested projects can often reduce their VMT by as much as 40% and 15% should be possible for most.

- Calls for preserving local agencies' flexibility by lifting the more specific or technical requirements out of the guidelines themselves and moving those into technical advisory memos or possibly OPR's revised General Plan guidelines. This persistent recommendation came in light of disagreements running since August about whether OPR's "recommendations" could carry the force of law -- especially due to objctions by the Holland & Knight law firm about possible mitigation measures listed in the OPR draft's Appendix F (see http://www.cp-dr.com/articles/node-3560).

- Answering a query about case studies in VMT reduction -- White and Johansen recommended TransForm's GreenTRIP analysis tools. (See http://www.transformca.org/landing-page/greentrip.)

- Some panelists questioned whether the proposed transportation metric guidelines ought to include recommendations on safety rules at all. Tumlin said "I can't believe that I'm actually arguing against safety," but for the sake of avoiding unintended consequences and litigation, he urged against definite road safety rules in a CEQA context. This was in part, he said, because of current controversy over conflicts between the overlapping road design manuals of CalTrans and of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). (White said CalTrans was now encouraging use of the NACTO manual in urban areas.)

- Audience member Tom Pace, from the City of Sacramento, asked that "things like queuing on ramps" not be counted as a safety consideration, for fear that infill projects might be harmed by mitigation requirements involving the highway ramps that surround downtown Sacramento.

Calfee closed by saying "our hope is to be very transparent about some of the conflicts that we see in this process and some of the policy choices that need to be made."

Comments on the August 6 transportation metric guidelines draft under SB 743 are due November 21 to [email protected]. The OPR presentation is available on video at http://www.opr.ca.gov/s_sb743.php.

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