For those Alamedans whose major concern about new residential development projects arises from their potential impact on traffic congestion at the tubes and bridges, the planners working for State government have a message:
It doesn’t really matter.
Under proposed guidelines issued this week for evaluating the “transportation impact” of new projects pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act, a governing body no longer will need to analyze the traffic delays likely to be caused by the project. More importantly, traffic congestion no longer will be one of the “significant” impacts requiring preparation of an environmental impact report. Absent an EIR, there will be no occasion to investigate measures for mitigating or avoiding the potential traffic delays or, if no such measures are feasible, to determine whether “overriding concerns” nevertheless justify approval of the project.
The guidelines have yet to go into effect, and it remains to be seen how, once they do, Alameda will revise its own environmental review process. But if the City goes as far as the guidelines allow – and we suspect there are some Inner Ringers who would like to see it do exactly that – consideration of whether a proposed project will back up traffic leading to the tubes and bridges will become passé: No one will know. And no one (at least no one in authority) will care.
The decision to dismiss traffic congestion as a factor in an environmental review was not made just recently. But it only caught the Merry-Go-Round’s attention when we read an item in the Chronicle this week about the new proposed guidelines – omniscient we don’t claim to be – and we decided to dig further.
As Assistant Community Development Director Andrew Thomas is fond of reminding the public, the City’s planners understand full well how seriously many Alamedans take the issue of traffic congestion. At present, staff ensures that data on the traffic impact of a proposed new project will be collected during the environmental review process: As part of the “initial study,” the developer must prepare a detailed “traffic impact study” analyzing the effect of the project on traffic delay at various locations under various scenarios.
The typical traffic impact study measures what the traffic engineers call the “level of service” – i.e., the average vehicle delay – at selected intersections during peak hours, and assigns a letter grade from “A” (insignificant”) to “F” (excessive). This analysis commonly is performed for “existing” conditions; “baseline” conditions, which include other already approved future projects, and “cumulative” conditions, which are based on forecast future traffic volumes. Each scenario is run with and without the proposed new project.
The study then examines whether the project is likely to worsen traffic delays at any of the selected intersections under any of the three scenarios. If the potential increased delay is large enough, the impact is deemed “significant,” and the requirements for further environmental review kick in.
Although the typical traffic impact study provides a lot of mind-numbing statistics, the non-professional reader knows where to look for the key information: the table comparing the LOS grades with and without the project under the various scenarios. To take the recently approved Del Monte warehouse project as an example, the traffic impact study done by Abrams & Associates shows that, once the project is built, the delay at two intersections – Buena Vista Avenue/Entrance Road and Sherman Street/Eagle Avenue – will be excessive (LOS “F”) under the “baseline” scenario, and the delay at six intersections – Buena Vista Avenue/Entrance Road; Park Street/Clement Avenue; Park Street/Blanding Avenue; Blanding Avenue/Tilden Way; Jackson Street/6th Street, and Sherman Street/Eagle Avenue – will hit bottom under the “cumulative” scenario.
As our regular readers know, the Merry-Go-Round, like former City Manager John Russo, is a big believer in data. Indeed, in all matters non-ecclesiastical, we won’t believe anything unless you can prove it to us. (“Everyone knows” isn’t a sufficient assurance, even if it’s uttered by the chair of the Planning Board). The traffic impact analysis of the sort now being performed satisfies our demand for data. If someone argues that the Del Monte warehouse project will exacerbate traffic congestion along the northern waterfront, well, they’ve got the evidence to back it up.
(We realize that the data is open to interpretation. Planning Board chair John Knox White, for example, claims to know better how to read a traffic impact study than Alameda resident and licensed traffic engineer Eugenie Thomson. But even rubes like us can tell the difference between an “A” and an “F.”)
The State planners don’t see it that way.
Back in 2013, State Senator Daniel Steinberg promised to make “CEQA reform” a top political priority. But a bill with that objective went nowhere, so Steinberg decided to incorporate many of its key provisions into legislation intended to streamline approval of the Sacramento Kings’ downtown arena project. The bill that ultimately passed – SB 743 – threw the traditional method of analyzing the “transportation impact” of development projects under CEQA out the window.
The bill directed the state Office of Planning and Research to prepare new guidelines for analyzing “transportation impact” that were designed not to focus on potential traffic delays but to “promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks, and diversity of land uses.” It instructed the planners to recommend “potential metrics to measure transportation impacts,” none of which was the LOS method. And, if the message wasn’t clear enough already, the bill stated that, “automobile delay, as described solely by the level of service or similar measures of vehicular capacity or traffic congestion, shall not be considered a significant impact on the environment. . . .” (emphasis supplied)
The State planners issued the original proposed guidelines in August 2014 and a revised version last week. The guidelines eliminate the need to collect LOS data for a proposed project. Instead, they mandate that “transportation impacts” should be analyzed using the “vehicle miles traveled” approach, which measures not traffic delays caused by the project but the “amount and distance that a project might cause people to drive.” And then, echoing the language in SB 743, they declare that, “A project’s effect on automobile delay does not constitute a significant environmental impact.”
Why the change? We’ll let the planners answer in their own words. From the FAQ:
- What is wrong with treating congestion as an environmental impact under CEQA?
Stakeholders have reported several problems with level of service, and congestion generally, as a measure of environmental impact under CEQA. First, as a measure of delay, congestion measures more of social, rather than an environmental impact. Second, the typical way to mitigate congestion impacts is to build larger roadways, which imposes long-term maintenance costs on tax-payers, pushes out other modes of travel, and may ultimately encourage even more congestion. Third, addressing congestion requires public agencies to balance many factors, including fiscal, health, environmental and other quality of life concerns. Such balancing is more appropriate in the planning context where agency decisions typically receive deference.
We’ll leave it to the CEQA experts to debate whether it’s true that “traffic congestion” is not an “environmental impact.” But this is not just a matter of semantics, since a finding of “significant environmental impact” carries consequences. Under CEQA, such a finding triggers the duty to prepare an EIR. For each identified “significant environmental impact,” the EIR must contain findings about whether it is “feasible” to avoid or mitigate the problem. The governing body cannot approve a project unless it finds that all of the “significant environmental impacts” have been eliminated or lessened (where feasible) – or that the project’s “economic, legal, social, technological, or other benefits” outweigh its unavoidable adverse environmental effects.
If traffic congestion never can rise to the level of a “significant environmental impact,” none of this will happen, regardless of how much additional traffic delay a proposed project is likely to cause. We give you the following case: Suppose a developer wants to build a new residential development at, say, the Encinal Terminals or the Alameda Marina. If a traffic impact study were done, it would show that, under the “baseline” or “cumulative” scenarios (i.e., in combination with other projects or at a future date), the project would cause “excessive” traffic delays (LOS “F”) at some or all of the intersections closest to the tubes and bridges.
What will happen under the guidelines? Nothing. The developer wouldn’t be required to prepare the traffic impact study in the first place. Even if she chose to do so (or someone did it for her), the result would not mandate preparation of an EIR identifying possible remedial action. And Council could approve the project without having to weigh the harm against the benefits.
Frankly, we don’t find this outcome particularly palatable. We don’t really care whether increased traffic delays are properly labeled an “environmental” impact. What matters to us is that they affect, to use the popular term, the “quality of life” for people living in Alameda and commuting to and from their jobs off the island.
Under the present system, a finding that a project will cause significant traffic delays doesn’t mean that it won’t get approved. But it does force the planners, and Council, to address the problem – and to provide reasons, supported by substantial evidence, to justify any decision to approve the project notwithstanding its traffic impact. At least for the island city of Alameda, that is as it should be.
There remains a ray of hope for those believe that the review process should continue to include analysis of a project’s effect on traffic. The proposed guidelines tell a city to use the VMT method, not the LOS method, but they don’t prohibit a City on its own from requiring a developer to prepare a traffic impact study. (Indeed, some commentators have noted that, in cities in which the General Plan contains standards based on LOS – and Alameda’s does – a developer may have to do both kinds of study). Moreover, even though the guidelines prohibit a city from treating increased traffic delay as a “significant environmental impact,” they don’t bar a planning board or a council from considering traffic impact in deciding whether to approve a project.
So what’s going to happen in Alameda? Mr. Thomas, the ball’s in your court. What say you?
“For now, we’ll continue to require LOS tables so that the public can understand the impact of the project on traffic,” Mr. Thomas told us. “But we won’t make a determination that the project has a significant impact under CEQA based on those tables – because that would be inconsistent with state law.
“This is something worth talking more about.”
So there you have it. We’re content to take Mr. Thomas at his word. But we’d advise those Alamedans concerned about the additional traffic generated by future development projects to stay alert for proposals emanating from the Planning Board (or Council) for changing the environmental review process, especially if those proposals are couched in terms of “complying with state law.” Otherwise, if they intend to get up at a Planning Board or Council meeting and complain about the traffic congestion caused by a proposed project, they might find themselves being ruled out of order.
OPR CEQA guidelines (August 6, 2014): Final_Preliminary_Discussion_Draft_of_Updates_Implementing_SB_743_080614
OPR CEQA guidelines (January 20, 2o16): Revised_VMT_CEQA_Guidelines_Proposal_January_20_2016
DelMonte initial study: 2014-06-23 Ex. 3 to staff report to PB – Del Monte Draft Supplemental Negative Declaration