California moves to reform traffic mitigation process

By Eric Sundquist

The California legislature last week passed a bill that will remove highway level-of-service and parking from traffic mitigation analyses. The bill applies to projects in many urban and suburban areas.

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign the bill, SB 743. The bill also provides regulatory relief for a new stadium for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.

The mitigation and parking provisions apply to “transit priority areas,” the parts of metro areas within one-half mile of transit corridors operating with headways of 15 minutes or less during peak hours.

In those areas, reform advocates say, existing mitigation requirements has discouraged infill development, as well as new bicycle, pedestrian, and transit projects, if they can be shown to degrade highway LOS. Under the bill, mitigation might still be required, but such exactions would be based on vehicle-miles traveled or some other metric, not LOS or parking impacts.

Key sections of the bill (emphasis added):

(b) (1) The Office of Planning and Research shall prepare, develop, and transmit to the Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency for certification and adoption proposed revisions to the guidelines adopted pursuant to Section 21083 establishing criteria for determining the significance of transportation impacts of projects within transit priority areas. Those criteria shall promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks, and a diversity of land uses. In developing the criteria, the office shall recommend potential metrics to measure transportation impacts that may include, but are not limited to, vehicle miles traveled, vehicle miles traveled per capita, automobile trip generation rates, or automobile trips generated. The office may also establish criteria for models used to analyze transportation impacts to ensure the models are accurate, reliable, and consistent with the intent of this section.

(2) Upon certification of the guidelines by the Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency pursuant to this section, automobile delay, as described solely by level of service or similar measures of vehicular capacity or traffic congestion shall not be considered a significant impact on the environment pursuant to this division, except in locations specifically identified in the guidelines, if any.

(3) This subdivision does not relieve a public agency of the requirement to analyze a project’s potentially significant transportation impacts related to air quality, noise, safety, or any other impact associated with transportation. The methodology established by these guidelines shall not create a presumption that a project will not result in significant impacts related to air quality, noise, safety, or any other impact associated with transportation. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the adequacy of parking for a project shall not support a finding of significance pursuant to this section.

An earlier version of the legislation, SB 731, would have eliminated LOS standards statewide and replaced them with what essentially would have been an impact-fee based on VMT or some other systemic metric. Advocates say the weaker version in SB 743 still covers wide swaths of the state’s most populous areas, and that while it does not require statewide reform, it allows the Office of Planning and Research to accomplish such a change through rule making.

Eric Sundquist is Managing Director of SSTI.