New CEQA Transportation Analysis Guidelines: A Fundamental Change

March 2020

On July 1, 2020, new guidelines will go into effect marking a fundamental shift in how transportation impacts are analyzed under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). The new guidelines, adopted at 14 CCR § 15063.4, will no longer rely on level of service (“LOS”) but will instead direct lead agencies to evaluate transportation impacts based on the anticipated “vehicle miles traveled” or “VMT” that a project will generate.

Under traditional LOS analysis, traffic related impacts are evaluated based on the amount of additional delay or reduction in capacity at intersections or road segments as a result of a project’s development. Corresponding mitigations, in turn, are typically focused on increasing vehicle capacity by expanding intersections or adding travel lanes.

VMT analysis, by contrast, requires a determination of the number of vehicle miles a project will generate – i.e. the distance in miles that a vehicle using the project will need to travel via direct or linked trips to and from the project – and balances that number against an established baseline or threshold. Impacts occur when the number of vehicle miles generated by a project exceeds the threshold. Mitigation, in response, is focused on reducing vehicle demand or otherwise shortening direct and indirect trips.

The net effect of this change in analysis is to favor denser, more urban, infill developments that compress uses into smaller, transit supportive areas that reduce total miles traveled and disfavor more suburban, car focused projects. This policy shift is evident on the face of the regulation, which provides, in relevant part, that:

Generally, projects within one-half mile of either an existing major transit stop or a stop along an existing high quality transit corridor should be presumed to cause a less than significant transportation impact. Projects that decrease vehicle miles traveled in the project area compared to existing conditions should be presumed to have a less than significant transportation impact.

(CEQA Guidelines §15064.3(b)(1).)

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (“OPR”) has produced a technical advisory to assist lead agencies, planners, and CEQA practitioners in implementing the new regulations. The advisory includes recommendations on appropriate assessment methodologies, significance thresholds, and mitigation measures based on unique project types.

While OPR’s recommendations can be valuable in jurisdictions that have not yet implemented the new guidelines, they should not be used where lead agencies have adopted localized VMT policies or General Plan standards.

A copy of the new Guidelines can be found here and OPR’s Technical Advisory here.

David P. Temblador is a Partner at Harrison, Temblador, Hungerford & Johnson LLP in Sacramento, California

© 2020 – Harrison, Temblador, Hungerford & Johnson LLP. All rights reserved. The information in this article has been prepared by Harrison, Temblador, Hungerford & Johnson LLP for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.