Major Revisions to CEQA Guidelines Proposed – Measuring Transportation Impacts Under CEQA: The Paradigm Shift to Vehicle Miles Traveled Arrives

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The paradigm shift in the evaluation of the transportation impacts of road and development projects has arrived.  The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) announced the most comprehensive and far-reaching revisions to the CEQA Guidelines in more than a decade.  The proposed revisions, if adopted, could dramatically increase CEQA compliance requirements applicable to transportation and development projects.  The proposed revisions to the CEQA Guidelines raise many important legal and policy issues including evaluation of climate change impacts, thresholds of significance, determination of the CEQA baseline, and other issues. 

Under the final proposal, Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) – put simply, the very act of driving a vehicle or inducing vehicle travel by improving roadway infrastructure – will in itself constitute an environmental impact requiring analysis and potentially mitigation that is distinct and additional to the air quality, public health, greenhouse gas emissions, and land use impacts that CEQA already requires be addressed prior to project approval.  The final proposal removes traffic congestion from the required scope of CEQA impacts analyses.  However, under CEQA and state land use law, project proponents will continue to have to demonstrate consistency with applicable land use plans, which require traffic congestion management mitigation to ensure adequate levels of service on public streets.  Notably, OPR’s proposal significantly increases a project proponent’s burden to show consistency with land use planning documents by requiring the showing that the proposal is consistent with all land use planning documents, not just the plans that by their express terms apply to the project. As such, OPR’s proposal will require projects proponents to demonstrate consistency with potentially conflicting local, regional, and statewide transportation planning objectives.

OPR’s proposed regulatory text indicates that a public agency may immediately commence implementation of the transportation impact guidelines, and that the guidelines shall apply statewide by January 1, 2020.

Other notable elements of OPR’s proposal relate to CEQA litigation and the appropriate scope of the greenhouse gas emissions analysis in a CEQA document.  With respect to CEQA litigation, OPR’s final proposal ventures into an entirely new arena for the State CEQA Guidelines by suggesting limits on the remedies that may be ordered by a court in CEQA action.  OPR’s proposal would require a court to allow aspects of a project to move forward while litigation is pending only if specific findings are made.

OPR’s proposal also greatly expands the reach of the California Supreme Court’s recent decision in Cleveland National Forest Foundation v. SANDAG by requiring the greenhouse gas emissions analysis for all projects – whether the project is a singular multi-unit residential development or a regional transportation plan governing billions of dollars of public transportation investments – to reflect evolving scientific knowledge and state regulatory schemes.  This mandate would increase the CEQA compliance burden for all projects, including infill development.

The Resources Agency is expected to institute a formal rulemaking to consider OPR’s proposal with additional opportunities for public participation prior to the codification of the comprehensive updates

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