SANDAG ruling included holdings on project alternatives, impact analysis

William Fulton on
Dec 21, 2014

Although the question of Executive Order S-3-05 was the main event in the Cleveland National Forest v. SANDAG appellate ruling, Presiding Justice Judith McConnell's split-decision majority ruling covered a number of other important areas interpreting how the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) should be used in the context of a regional transportation plan.

Some of these other issues are related to the question of EO S-3-05, but many of McConnell's conclusions stand on their own as being worthy of note by CEQA practitioners.

Much of McConnell's ruling criticized SANDAG for its selection of alternatives, concluding that the agency had deliberately selected only those alternatives that were either not achievable or not meaningful. However, she also concluded that SANDAG erred in not analyzing an alternative that would have significantly reduced total vehicle miles traveled compared to the plan that was adopted.

McConnell did not mince words. She noted that SANDAG's "transit emphasis" alternatives focused primarily on ramping up rapid bus projects without increasing the amount of rail service. This has been a major point of contention between SANDAG and environmentalists. SANDAG has emphasized high-occupancy vehicle lanes and bus rapid transit, which means building more freeway lanes rather than more rail lines. "In fact," McConnell wrote, "the ‘transit emphasis' alternatives include fewer transit projects than some of the other non-‘transit-emphasis' alternatives."

She added: "The omission of an alternative which could significantly reduce total vehicle miles traveled is inexplicable given SANDAG's acknowledgement in its Climate Action Strategy that the state's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from on-road transportation will not succeed if the amount of driving, or vehicle miles traveled, is not significantly reduced."

Quoting the Climate Action Strategy that formed part of the plan, McConnell concluded that the SANDAG alternatives were focused primarily on congestion relief, including via freeway widening, even though the strategy notes that congestion relief may not be an effective greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy.

Justice McConnell's majority opinion also found fault with the way SANDAG dealt with air quality impacts in the environmental impact report. In particular, she criticized the way SANDAG approached the question of particulates and toxic air contaminants. She agreed with the environmentalists' argument that SANDAG needed to provide more detailed information on the impact of air pollution on sensitive receptors in close proximity to transportation projects.

For example, she wrote, "the EIR failed to correlate the additional tons of annual transportation plan-related emissions to anticipated adverse health impacts from the emissions. Although the public and decision makers might infer from the EIR the transportation plan will make air quality and human health worse, at least in some respects for some people, this is not sufficient information to understand the adverse impact."

She concluded that, while there are limitations to a program-level analysis, SANDAG did not provide any evidence that it is not possible to provide more detailed information. "SANDAG is nonetheless obliged to disclose what it reasonably can about the correlation [between transportation projects and air quality impacts on sensitive receptors], it has not done so, and there is not substantial evidence showing it could not do so."

McConnell ruled against the environmentalists on their contention that SANDAG did not adequately address the impact of the plan on agriculture and especially on small farms, in large part because she concluded that the environmentalists' comment letter did not raise these issues in the context of growth-inducing impacts.