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California Proposes Overhaul of Standards for Transportation-related Environmental Impact Analysis

lawson, kristina, manattEarlier this month Governor Jerry Brown’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) released for public review and debate a draft of proposed amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act’s implementing guidelines (CEQA Guidelines). If ultimately approved, the guidelines will fundamentally change the way transportation-related environmental impacts are analyzed and mitigated throughout California.

While the proposed amendments are currently in draft form and therefore remain subject to change or even withdrawal, if the proposal advances, automobile delay will generally no longer be considered a significant impact on the environment for CEQA purposes. Once approved, the provisions will take effect immediately in California’s transit priority areas, and then statewide in 2016, unless adopted earlier by a local community.

Today CEQA’s transportation analyses focus on the delay experienced by an individual automobile driver at a study intersection or on a roadway segment. Traffic engineers quantify this delay through a metric known as “level of service” or LOS.

Targeting the LOS standard, last year Senate Bill 743 was approved and signed into law requiring OPR to prepare revisions to the CEQA Guidelines that establishes criteria for determining the significance of transportation impacts within transit priority areas. SB 743 followed on the heels of the implementation of SB 375 and AB 32, which together placed a heightened focus on the link between land use and transportation planning decisions and greenhouse gas emissions in California. In addition to the increased need for local governments to focus on greenhouse gas emissions reductions through land use and transportation planning, the California Complete Streets Act of 2008 had required local governments to plan for a balanced, multimodal transportation network that meets the needs of all users of streets, roads, and highways for safe and convenient travel.

Taken together, these mandates present a sometimes conflicting challenge: under the traditional methods of analyzing transportation-related environmental impacts, automobile delay (expressed in LOS standards) was the key metric. Typical mitigation for automobile delay involves adding roadway capacity by increasing the size or width of intersections – a wholly automobile-focused solution which tended to disincentive increased adoption of alternate modes of transportation. SB 743, and as a result of OPR’s new proposal, seeks to eliminate this disincentive, with the legislative intent of “more appropriately balanc[ing] the needs of congestion management with statewide goals related to infill development, promotion of public health through active transportation, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

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