The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a statute that requires State and local agencies to identify significant environmental impacts of their projects and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible.
What are the CEQA transportation requirements for the City of San José?
The City of San José is required to establish a standard for measuring traffic impacts of proposed developments. For decades, the standard San José used to measure these impacts was transportation Level of Service (LOS). The City of San José adopted this measure in Council Policy 5-3, Transportation Impact Policy. On February 27, 2018, City Council voted to adopt a Council Policy 5-1 that establishes Vehicle Miles Traveled as the new standard to measure transportation impacts for CEQA analysis.
What is Level of Service (LOS)?
Transportation Level of Service (LOS) is a measure of traffic delay at signalized intersections or roadway segments. Level of Service uses a letter-grade system ranging from LOS A, or free-flow conditions with little or no delay, to LOS F, or jammed conditions with excessive delays.
What is Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT)?
Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) measures the distance a motorized vehicle will travel to a destination, divided by the number of passengers (i.e., per capita). Typically, development located farther from retail, office, and other uses and with poor access to transit, generates more driving than development situated close to complementary uses and transit. Cities use VMT to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions and some transportation impacts.
Why is the City changing its Transportation Impact policy?
The State in 2013 passed SB 743 (Steinberg), which required the establishment of a new method to determine the significance of transportation impacts of a project under CEQA. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) has recommended that VMT replace LOS as the primary measure of transportation impacts. The OPR guidance generally recommends that the threshold for residential and office projects be 15% below the existing per capita VMT. As of November 2017, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research has prepared proposed updates to the CEQA Guidelines. The proposal and related materials are available here: http://opr.ca.gov/ceqa/updates/guidelines/.
The Natural Resources Agency will soon commence a formal rulemaking process to adopt the proposed changes.
Why did the State pass legislation to adopt this change?
SB 743 (Steinberg) states that “New methodologies under the California Environmental Quality Act are needed for evaluating transportation impacts that are better able to promote the State’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and traffic-related air pollution, promoting the development of a multimodal transportation system, and providing clean, efficient access to destinations.”
What does this mean for the City of San José?
This new metric aligns with the Envision San José 2040 General Plan (General Plan) goals for smart and focused growth, accessibility, affordability, great places and public life, economic development, and environmental sustainability. This shift to VMT furthers implementation of the General Plan in the following ways:
Reducing the need to drive to destinations
Removing key barriers to more sustainable growth
Streamlining transit and active transportation projects
Taking advantage of an existing metric, that addresses several General Plan goals
Reducing infrastructure capital and maintenance costs
Does my ability to engage in land use and transportation decisions change?
No. The process for weighing in on land use changes and transportation projects will remain the same. Citizens will still be able to provide comments, speak at public hearings, and contact elected representatives on new development. The City Council still has the authority to make land use and transportation decisions.
How will the CEQA process in San José change?
For certain types of transportation projects (e.g. bike lanes and sidewalk gap closures) and certain types of development projects in General Plan growth areas (e.g., some Urban Villages), a transportation analysis under CEQA may not be required. This change to VMT only affects the transportation section under CEQA. Analysis of other CEQA subject areas such as biological and cultural resources, noise, and air quality remain the same.
How will this change impact the City’s ability to ask developers for transportation investments?
Neighborhood traffic and mobility is very important to the City. Developers will still be required to improve operations to the transportation network and to address neighborhood traffic.
Will the shift to VMT make it easier or harder to develop in my neighborhood?
Every development project is unique and will be evaluated according to its specific attributes and context However, in general, development proposed in General Plan designated growth areas with good access to transit and a mix of uses (e.g. residential, office and retail) could achieve a streamlined CEQA process if General Plan amendments are not required for the project. Developments in places where it is hard to get around without a car will likely have to mitigate the impacts of VMT.
Will the shift to VMT change the CEQA process?
The CEQA process will not change, but some projects currently not exempt from CEQA transportation analysis may be exempt from CEQA transportation analysis under VMT.
How will the shift to VMT impact new development projects?
New development projects that are required to analyze VMT will still be required to have a traffic impact analysis. Generally, new development proposals will be required to have project impacts measured using new City transportation policies based on the VMT metric. Mixed-use development in General Plan growth areas, located near transit, may be more likely to meet VMT reduction thresholds more easily. Proposed developments not in growth areas and transit corridors will likely need to provide mitigation to reduce VMT impacts. Beyond the CEQA VMT metric, projects will continue to be required to analyze local intersection operations and other potential impacts.
How will this change impact new transportation projects?
Transportation projects that inherently help reduce VMT such as bicycle lanes, transit facilities, and sidewalk improvements may no longer have to go through a CEQA analysis for transportation environmental impacts. These projects may still be subject to city analysis on overall transportation system and operations impacts. Transportation projects that may increase VMT would be required to analyze VMT impacts and potentially mitigate those impacts.
When will the change to VMT happen? How will projects already in the pipeline be treated?
The new Transportation Analysis Policy will be in effect 30 days after City Council approval. New development projects that submit complete development applications after that date must comply with the new Policy; before that date, projects that wish to also study VMT per the new Policy may do so with approval from the Director of Public Works. Projects and plans (including Area Development Plans) that already have completed environmental review under the previous City Council Policy 5-3 that analyzed LOS remain subject to the existing Policy 5-3, and can carry out minor amendments under Policy 5-3.
If a new development proposes to include Transportation Demand Management (TDM) measures into a development, how will the City enforce these measures?
The City will require annual monitoring of the approved TDM measures and reporting to the City’s environmental review section for approval. These requirements will be included in the planning permit.
How will impacts in neighboring jurisdictions be handled, especially if the neighboring jurisdiction has not yet transitioned to a VMT metric for CEQA transportation analysis?
The City will use the neighboring city’s transportation analysis metrics and impact criteria. If a neighboring city is using a LOS-based metric, the City of San José would require an analysis of LOS in the neighboring jurisdiction.
How will retail be analyzed?
Retail developments smaller than 100,000 square feet or less and are not drive-through operations are presumed to be local-serving and have a less than significant impact under CEQA. Retail developments greater than 100,000 square feet will be analyzed by the net change in total VMT.
How will this change impact housing?
Each development is unique and will be considered on an individual basis. Proposed very high-density housing developments that are consistent with the General Plan and support transit use – and are located in areas with high-quality transit and amenities – may not have to analyze transportation impacts under CEQA, which may streamline the CEQA process.
How will this change impact affordable housing?
According to the Association of Bay Area Governments’ report on Transit Oriented Development and Affordable Housing, lower-income households have lower car ownership rates than moderate-income households. Although each development is unique and will be individually analyzed, very high-density affordable housing developments tend to generate lower VMT than market-rate housing at comparable densities. The City of San José’s Transportation Analysis Policy provides screening criteria for transportation review under CEQA for 100% affordable housing constructed near a major transit stop or a high-quality transit corridor in Planned Growth Areas. The policy also allows 100% affordable housing to be built in conformance with the General Plan even if the site is located where VMT impact is not mitigatable.
Will this change impact the environment?
When LOS was used as the transportation impact screening criterion, greenfield development generated fewer transportation impacts under CEQA; in contrast, LOS impacts in infill locations were high. VMT is a more holistic approach to analyzing the transportation impacts of new development and generally aligns the type of development encouraged in the General Plan (infill near transit and services) with CEQA.
What are the impacts on business?
In general, businesses that are developing land uses at certain intensities that conform to the General Plan and that are in growth areas with high-quality transit may not have to analyze transportation impacts under CEQA, which may streamline the environmental review process.
How will this shift affect overall affordability?
The proposed Transportation Analysis Policy and shift to VMT is intended to streamline residential development overall, particularly affordable housing, infill housing, and homes in low-VMT areas. This streamlining should allow for greater supply and lower housing costs. Importantly, it will also lower transportation costs as new development is concentrated in areas with a variety of affordable transportation options. This is a key argument made by the state in support of the VMT policy.