Phasing out LOS in favor of VMT is pitting bona fide infill builders against astroturf infill builders. Image of Kings River Village infill development from Council of Infill Builders
Buried in a five-hour long meeting of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee yesterday, a short discussion ended in a vote to move legislation that will delay the state’s shift away from car-centric planning.
A.B. 779. The bill aims to slow the removal of Level of Service (LOS) from California environmental regulations by delaying implementation of guidelines currently being developed by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR).
In 2013, California passed S.B. 743 which required the OPR to develop a replacement for LOS that more closely reflects state climate change goals. OPR is planning to replace Level of Service with Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). Currently, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) bases environmental impacts of traffic on LOS, which results in favoring car capacity over actual environmental benefits. A switch to measuring VMT changes the goal from “moving cars” to “reducing car trips.”
“Just to be clear,” said Assemblymember Cristina Garcia, the bill’s author, “this isn’t about getting rid of VMT. VMT is a fine measure. This bill would press ‘pause’ on the process.”
The bill’s sponsors claim that having to analyze VMT would be burdensome and duplicative, since in some cases they would still be required to produce an LOS analysis to meet local planning requirements.
However, that claim looks pretty specious, for several reasons.
For one, OPR’s guidelines will excuse most true infill projects from any transportation analysis under CEQA, so there would be no need for “duplicative analyses.” This is because projects within a half mile of a major transit stop, as defined in the bill, would be exempt. It’s useful to remember than an earlier draft of A.B. 779 would have removed the word “major” in this definition, thus would have exempted pretty much any kind of development near any bus stop anywhere in the state, no matter how sparse the transit service there.
Another point to keep in mind is that VMT analyses are much simpler than current LOS traffic studies. According to Ethan Elkind, a faculty member at the UCLA and UC Berkeley law schools who has written about the bill, OPR’s proposed guidelines provide local governments more judicial deference for their VMT analysis than they currently have for LOS, which reduces the risk of being sued under CEQA.
“Infill projects come out way ahead with these proposed guidelines. It’s the sprawl projects that will suffer, because they induce so much VMT,” adds Elkind.
OPR is scheduled to submit a second draft of its guidelines in the summer, which will be followed by a 45-day public comment period. There could be more drafts, and more public comment periods, if changes are substantial.