Six years after it was enacted, SB 743 – the bill that shifts environmental review of traffic from Level of Service to Vehicle Miles Traveled – is finally being implemented around the state. At the California APA conference in Santa Barbara on Tuesday, a group of panelists talked about how they are trying to make it work.

The panel was put together by the consulting firm of Fehr & Peers and focused in large part on two major SB 743 projects that firm has undertaken – new traffic impact guidance for the Cal State system and an implementation plan for SB 743 undertaken by the Western Riverside Council of Governments on behalf of its member agencies, which are mostly cities.

Most of the discussion wen to the question of when lead agencies can screen out projects – that is, what types of projects will not be subject to environmental review under SB 743.

“We’ve had six years to talk about this,” said Jason Pack of Fehr & Peers. Now, guidelines under the California Environmental Quality Act have been revised to include language about SB 743, while the actual implementation date of SB 743 is July 1, 2020. “In the meantime,” Pack said, “who knows what you are supposed to do?”

What Do You Compare Your Project To?

This is probably the biggest question facing SB 743 practitioners. The Governor’s Office of Planning & Research’s technical advisory suggests doing a VMT analysis on any project that located in an area that has 15% less average VMT than the city, subregion, or region. But the recent Newhall Ranch case from the California Supreme Court shows the perils of using a regional or statewide standard (in that case, involving greenhouse gas emissions).

Andrew Scher, a transportation engineer for Fehr & Peers, pointed to a Wal-Mart project in Eastvale that had high VMT-generating uses – regional retail – but it was located in a low-VMT area. “Compared to citywide, that particular transportation analysis zone is low VMT, “he said. “But adding the project to that TAZ increases the VMT per service population. That’s a potentially significant impact.”

More Environmental Review On Tiny Projects?

If big projects in low-VMT areas might not be analyzed, the reverse is also true: Small projects (mostly single-family home projects) in high-VMT areas might have to be analyzed.

“It’s flipping the type of environmental review you do,” Pack said. “Right now we’re doing EIRs on 9-unit project in DTLA. Why are you doing EIRs when we are putting projects in low VMT areas?”

At the same time, said Tiffany Wright of Remy Moose Manley, in high-VMT areas, “a lot of agencies and applicants having moment of, OMG I’m going to have to do an EIR for my tiny project!”

Understand the Geographical Limits of Your Model

Scher also noted that the Riverside County transportation model cuts off all trips at the San Diego County line. “When you’re calculating your VMT, model does not give us any information about those trip lengths,” he said. That provided a deceivingly low VMT estimate for trips in Temecula. So watch out for wrinkles like that.

TDM and VMT Mitigation Banks?

Many of the panelists noted that in more suburban areas, VMT mitigation measures are focused mostly on transportation demand management (TDM solutions). And in many cases, there is no way to beef up the TDM measures strongly enough to get the VMT down to an acceptable level. In many cases, this leads to jurisdictions declaring a significant and unavoidable impact under CEQA. But WRCOG – which already collects a regional transportation impact fee and was a critical player in setting up habitat conservation banking in Riverside County – is considering another option: A VMT mitigation bank that developers could pay into, which could be used to finance VMT-lowering measures elsewhere. The trick is being able to track the progress once the project is built.

Doesn’t Everybody Still Want To Mitigate LOS?

Sure. But they can’t use CEQA to do it.

“Doing LOS for general plan consistency, that’s where most of the jurisdictions are landing,” Pack said. But he added that without the threat of a CEQA lawsuit, LOS analyses are likely to be smaller in scope. “The giant studies are going to go away,” he said. “You’re going to do these 10 roads that the city is worried about, not these 30 that we are afraid some adjacent city might sue us over under CEQA.”