Traffic congestion? Who cares?

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:

  1. 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.

Sources:

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

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in City Council, Development, Housing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Traffic congestion? Who cares?

  1. Keith Nealy says:

    This is total nonsense. To say that congestion is not an environmental factor is ridiculous. Even from the simple consideration of carbon emission, let alone quality of life issues, being stuck in traffic is certainly an environmental factor.

  2. Keith Nealy says:

    If traffic issues could be resolved satisfactorily rather than fictitiously, most of the opposition to increased housing construction would disappear. But pretending there is no impact, or that it’s been solved doesn’t accomplish anything or fool anyone.

  3. “A project’s effect on automobile delay does not constitute a significant environmental impact.”

    But a project’s effect on vehicle miles traveled apparently will constitute an impact because the more miles logged, the more greenhouse gas emissions produced. If, as stated above, the new guidelines will be designed to “promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the development of multimodal transportation networks….,” then too many cars – producing greenhouse gas emissions – (also known as traffic congestion) will ultimately trigger consequences for a developer. It’s not clear to me from the information above that a developer is going to end up with any less of a burden to mitigate traffic impacts.

    Of course, if most cars become electric or hybrid electric and produce very few emissions, then we’re in trouble. The greenhouse gas emission issue will be marginal and then what tool will be available to limit auto traffic? And if driverless cars ever become trendy, it will only encourage driving – why not? You could be busy working on a computer, or take a nap.

  4. dave says:

    Since we know that a full build out of the base will only add 1 car per hour (or is it one a month? I can’t remember) this is a non-issue. Mox nix, no traffic problems here.

  5. BMac says:

    This is common sense regulatory reform. As you point out, nothing stops the City Council from considering traffic impacts when considering a project. The Council is accountable to the voter and if the voter demands traffic congestion be a primary concern, a primary concern it will be. The Council is the appropriate place for “quality of life” concerns to be represented.

    It would, however, be folly for state environmental regulators to discourage development in an inner-ring suburb like Alameda, in order to favor it on the greenfield periphery of Vacaville. If you primary concern is to have as many vehicles for halting developments in your backyard that receive the approval of your elected leaders, no matter how disingenuous, then I could see how this would be bad news. As someone who believes in fair fights and the democratic process, this is a no-brainer.

  6. AN says:

    The time has come to price road use.

  7. dave says:

    We already price road use. Toll roads, toll bridges, gas taxes, higher insurance for longer commutes, commercial truck fees, etc.

    Do you have other methods in mind?

  8. Paul S Foreman says:

    There is still a traffic impact element provided in CEQA that has great relevance to Alameda and,,based on current limitations of ingress and egress to and from our island, could be used to stop a great deal of residential development in the city.

    There is a very recent unpublished case in the CA Court of Appeals . http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/nonpub/C072680.DOC (the intermediate appeals court-could still be apppealed t0 the CA Supreme Court) It concerns expansion of the ski resort at Homewood. The opponents claimed that neither the General Plan nor the EIR addressed the issue of evacuation and first responder access in the case of fire or earthquake. The court ruled that there was no discrepancy in the Plan because it did address a few lines to it and all the law required was consideration. However the Court decided that the CEQA requires specifics as to how the issue would be mitigated and the EIR failed to do so. I have not checked our Alameda Point EIR but I doubt very much if our EIR is up to snuff on this, which would clearly be a big issue in Alameda, since our ingress and egress in emergencies will be very limited, which limitations are exacerbated by the fact that most of our first responders live off of the island.

    • Eugenie Thomson P.E. says:

      Bob thank you for posting your comments on the latest DRAFT proposed CEQA guidelines for Traffic Impact studies.

      These draft guidelines still include on page II.9 the evaluations if the project would result in inadequate emergency access .

      But the City did not evaluate the traffic impacts associated with the Alameda Point project due to the potential shutdown of one or both of the Alameda Tubes after a quake. Nor was this considered for the new Housing Element.

      Irregardless of what CEQA says Alameda must consider the island related access issues.

      In my comment letter to the DEIR for Alameda Point, the following comment was made with respect to the need of considering traffic access impacts due to seismic events.
      (See Thomson letter dated Oct 21, 2013, DEIR comment letter number 30. Starting at 3-330 of the Ala PT FEIR. )

      .Thomson Comment to the Ala Point DEIR:
      According to Caltrans letters dated from Caltrans to the City of Alameda in 2002, the tubes have a seismic rating of minimum performance level. A professional engineering report ” Retrofit Strategy Report” for the Alameda Tubes dated September 30, 1996 prepared by Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade and Douglas Inc. and approved and adopted by Caltrans states that minimum performance levels after an earthquake in Table 10-2 would result in:
      “Delays to motorists due to tube closure requiring long term (more than a year) diversion of traffic to the bridge crossings between Oakland and Alameda”.
      (note: the above is the status after the retrofit is completed)

      As major seismic events are no different (even less controversial) than the rising sea levels, the earthquake event is reasonably foreseeable and should be evaluated in this DEIR. With almost 70,000 vehicles per day using the tubes, traffic impacts and mitigations need to be assessed for the without and with project conditions.

      Furthermore this Seismic Strategy Report mentioned the steel re -enforcement was corroded and the field test indicated this condition to be a problem. The report is unclear if this was planned to be fixed. Per the report the primary damage to the tubes (retrofitted to minimum performance levels) is expected to be cracks and significant leakage; the tubes may be flooded within a day but that no loss of life would be expected. The report also indicates that repairs may not be possible, thus requiring replacement of the tube(s).

      At a minimum wouldn’t it be appropriate to construct protective traffic devices similar to railroad crossings so vehicles do not continue to enter the tubes immediately after an earthquake? This measure and other measures should be considered for safety of the public and be evaluated for both without and with project conditions.

      The City’s response to the above comment as published in the Final EIR was as follows:

      “CEQA does not require that the EIR analyze the impacts to the regional transportation system or the conditions in Chinatown in the event of a major earthquake or other natural or man-made disaster. .”
      see all their responses 17-17, and 17-16 .

      City did not evaluate traffic impacts due to seismic events in the Ala Pt EIR even though the Caltrans engineering experts concluded a likely shutdown of one or both of the tubes after all the seismic work was completed. Caltrans could and did not complete the retrofit work, and the corrosion problems continue to exist and grow.

      With respect to the Draft CEQA guidelines, I am sure many will be commenting on these. I believe these guidelines are appropriate for larger cities but not for cities like Alameda with limited access.

      A major concern is the cumulative vehicles miles traveled has not been addressed in the proposed guidelines. As the population grows each and every project even if their contribution is small, will result in more VMTs, congestion, lower speeds and longer and longer queues and longer periods of congestion. The lower speeds and extended periods of congestion have indirect environmental impacts (air quality and noise). Transit and all modes will be affected. Solutions and funds are needed to maintain reasonable access for all modes if VMT reductions and emission reductions are to be achieved.

      Your key quote in your article says it all.
      “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.”

      I would say those of us concerned about traffic in Alameda are concerned about the quality of life for our ISLAND community, even if it is no longer considered an “environmental impact”. We are concerned about the risks that we face in being able to get on and off the island on a regular basis in a reliable way as well as what we will face after the next big earthquake on the Hayward Fault. These are issues that must be addressed in planning the future of our city.

      What has been missing in all the discussions in Alameda is that no one is addressing the massive background growth in Alameda jobs that underlie all the future growth assumptions and whether that is anywhere close to what is likely to happen. That unrealistic jobs growth assumption has been used to mask the effects of the massive amounts of housing the City has approved through the updated Housing Element and recently approved projects at Alameda Point and along the Northern Waterfront.

      Alameda has calculated Vehicles miles traveled for the cumulative condition (ie year 2030 or 2035 after all the developments are in place).
      For example, on pdf page 862, table 2 in the DEIR for the Transportation Element are the following results.
      Vehicles miles traveled for all travel within and to/from Alameda per day is
      Existing (2007) is 2,511,367 veh-miles per day ;
      for the Year 2030 base it is estimated at 3,617,513 veh- miles per day (increase in travel of 44.05%)
      Year 2030 base with Transportation Element it is estimated to be 3,609,617 veh-miles per day or an increase of 43.73%.

      The City estimated that the new Transportation Element with all the smart growth policies etc would not result in any major reduction in these massive predicted VMTs. This same EIR was used for the environmental clearance for the zoning decisions on July 3, 2012. But surprisingly, the Transportation Element EIR indicated no major reductions in travel/VMT and the City continues in approving developments only using the Transportation Element as the mitigation of reducing travel.

      But why has this total massive increase in travel not been openly discussed?? Why has the City not calculated the congestion levels approaching the tubes nor calculated the increase in travel time to leave the island? Instead what we get is Negative Declarations like for the Del Monte project which state the project has NO traffic nor parking impact and Alameda Point only resulting in one net car off island during the morning commute and result in zero added congestion at the west end.

      The cumulative conditions need to be considered irregardless of the new CEQA guidelines especially considering the fact there is likely no public funding for an estuary crossing and the unlikelihood of the island attracting large employers needed to meet those employment predictions. Traffic does not impact roadways it impacts our quality of life.

  9. AN says:

    Yes. Variable charging depending on congestion level.

  10. AN says:

    Ah, David. Always so charming. The problems about which there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth are at bridges and tunnels, right? There’s not much intra-island congestion. You can have variable charging based on electronic monitoring. The express lane from 880 to 237 works this way.

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