The City of Sunnyvale's analysis of a road improvement project's traffic and related impacts based on predicted conditions in 2020 violated the California Environmental Quality Act's requirement to compare a proposed project with existing conditions.

The Sunnyvale case offers the most recent California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) decision on selecting a project baseline for environmental review. Although the city had some discretion over the baseline, the city had no authority to use a point 12 years in the future as the baseline, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled.

The City of Sunnyvale proposed to construct a four-lane, northerly extension of Mary Avenue, including light rail tracks, over the Bayshore and South Bay Freeways to Eleventh Avenue. The road and transit lines would serve an industrial area adjacent to the former Moffett Field Naval Air Station (see CP&DR Economic Development, October 15, 2009). The city's environmental impact report adopted in 2008 analyzed the project and its impacts based on 2020 conditions, as opposed to present-day conditions.

A group called Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association sued over the project's EIR. A Santa County Superior Court judge ruled in the group's favor and the city appealed. The Sixth District upheld the trial court's decision rejecting the city's argument that the project could be evaluated differently because it was a traffic congestion-relief project. The court found there is no provision in CEQA allowing the city to review the roadway infrastructure project differently than other projects. The court further found the administrative record was devoid of substantial evidence to support the city's decision to deviate from the norm of using current conditions as the baseline for project analysis.

The appellate court identified numerous flaws in the EIR regarding the traffic impacts analysis. For example, the EIR assumed that numerous roadway improvements in the project area would be in place by 2020, regardless of the proposed project. Additionally, the EIR lacked an analysis of how the project would change the level of service at various intersections under the existing conditions. Notably, the draft EIR found only one significant impact for traffic – deterioration of service at the intersection of Mary Avenue and Maude Avenue – and that impact was reduced to less than significant.

The noise analysis in the draft EIR was also problematic. For instance, the city did not compare potential noise impacts with the project versus noise impacts without the project. Instead, the EIR concluded that the project would be responsible for a traffic noise level increase of less than one decibel above the 24-hour average of noise levels expected as a result of general plan build-in 2020 traffic volumes. Such an increase would not be measurable or exceed the threshold for noise and, thus, the city concluded the project would not result in significant noise impacts. However, the EIR did not analyze the project's traffic-related noise impacts on the existing environment.

Additionally, the court found the air quality impacts were not properly analyzed. The draft EIR stated that the project would accommodate existing and future traffic, and would not create new traffic. The EIR concluded there would not be any significant air quality impacts associated with the project because (1) the project would improve long-term air quality by providing an alternate north-south route, alleviating congestion on some routes, and because (2) carbon monoxide would not exceed standards along Mary Avenue. However, the EIR did not describe existing air quality conditions in the project area so it was impossible to truly ascertain what the project's air quality impacts, the court concluded.

Oddly, the growth-inducement section of the EIR indicated that the project would cause growth, and that growth would result in increased traffic, noise, air pollution, and water pollution.

Essentially, all of the EIR's flaws were based on an improper baseline. The appellate court highlighted a peer review of the draft EIR in which a consultant questioned the baseline because a base year of 2020 could underestimate the impacts of the project, especially if the project were built before 2020. The peer review consultant recommended the draft EIR contain an analysis of existing conditions, which would likely include increased significant impacts that may or may not be mitigated.

The appellate court acknowledged that "an agency may exercise its discretion to apply appropriate methodology to determine the ‘baseline' existing conditions." It listed as an example the instance when traffic congestion has temporarily decreased because of an unusually poor economy. In this event, an agency might use historical data and traffic modeling to determine generally existing conditions. Conversely, when evidence indicates traffic levels are expected to increase significantly due to other projects occurring in the area, projected traffic levels as of the expected date of project approval (not construction) may be appropriate.

In response to the city's argument that the proposed road extension warranted a different analysis because it was a "traffic congestion relief project," the court noted that there is no provision of CEQA or the CEQA Guidelines that allows roadway infrastructure to be evaluated differently than other projects.

"The statute requires the impact of any proposed project to be evaluated against a baseline of existing environmental conditions, which is the only way to identify the environmental effects specific to the project alone," Justice Franklin D. Elia wrote for the court.

The court emphasized that road infrastructure projects aimed at reducing regional traffic problems can still have growth-inducing impacts with indirect adverse impacts on the environment and could have adverse environmental impacts in the immediate vicinity, such as localized increases in traffic, noise and air pollution, which need to be analyzed by comparing the proposed project to existing conditions.

The court held that while deviations for the normal baseline standard of existing conditions may be permitted, the record in this case did not contain substantial evidence to support a deviation. Specifically, the court stated that a project manager's comments in writing and at a public hearing regarding why the city selected 2020 as its baseline did not constitute substantial evidence because "the year of the anticipated project completion was merely a guestimate."

Ultimately, the court decided that the city's failure to analyze the project's impacts based on existing conditions constituted a prejudicial abuse of discretion.

"While the analyses using the projected traffic conditions in 2020 certainly adds valuable information to the EIR, they are not a substitute for evaluating the project's traffic and related impacts on the existing conditions," Elia wrote. "Without a straightforward assessment of the project's full impact on existing conditions, the EIR process does not service its core informational purpose."

The Case:
Sunnyvale West Neighborhood Association v. City of Sunnyvale, No. H035135, 2010 DJDAR 18843. Filed December 16, 2010.

The Lawyers:

For Sunnyvale West: Alexander T. Henson, (831) 659-4100.

For the city: David E. Kahn and Kathryn A. Berry, Office of the City Attorney, (408) 730-7464.