The proposed CEQA Guidelines prohibiting lead agencies from categorizing traffic congestion as a significant impact will likely trump any significance finding tied to local general plans that contain a level of service standard, state officials said at a forum on the draft guidelines Friday in San Diego.

In response to a question, Chris Calfee, counsel at the Governor's Office of Planning & Research, indicated that General Plan congestion standards won't be counted as significant under CEQA. "Once the guidelines are adopted, then those measures can't be the basis of a significance finding under CEQA," he said. He later indicated that it may be necessary to revise the CEQA checklist to reflect this viewpoint.

At the same time, Calfee emphasized: "We are only making changes to the CEQA analysis. Local General Plan policies, zoning codes, things like that, those remain in place. This does not interfere with local police power. Local agencies get to keep their impact fees, their planning processes, as otherwise." Nevertheless, the general impression conveyed by OPR is that the CEQA Guidelines amendments are likely to drive local government policies away from congestion and toward VMT as a standard.

The draft guidelines � issued by OPR pursuant to the SB 743 CEQA reform bill passed last year � would replace the congestion-based "level of service" standard with a "vehicle miles traveled" standard. OPR is now taking the show on the road to gauge response. On Friday � as a warmup to the state American Planning Association conference in Anaheim � OPR's Chris Ganson and Calfee presented the proposed guidelines to a crowd of 250 planners, transportation engineers, and advocates at San Diego City Hall.

Much of the event consisted of Ganson providing detail on the proposal that has been previously reported in CP&DR. Along the way, however, Ganson provided some interesting detail about why other prospective measures � especially multi-modal level of service � had been rejected in favor of VMT. 

He said LOS as a general standard often focuses on the wrong things � moving vehicles instead of people, for example, and solving the program of localized congestion around a particular project without considering the overall impact on the transportation system. "The scale of analysis is too small," he said. "Oftentimes, you relieve a bottleneck and end up with a worse bottleneck downstream, which worsens the whole situation." In other words, he said: "All you did was you moved impact outside of your scope of analysis to somewhere else."

Discussing multi-modal level of service � which has often been identified as a possible alternative to vehicle level of service � Ganson said it has many of the same defects as vehicle level of service. "There are a lot of situations in which inserting multimodal LOS could be quite useful, "he said." We found CEQA not to be one of them because it creates some of the same perverse incentives � in infill development it's again going to trigger impacts on transit, bicycling, ped facilities. It looks at crowding and says adding more people is bad but of course what we want is to add more people."

Ganson also reiterated that even if congestion itself would not be considered a significant impact, the new guidelines would continue to permit actual environmental impacts of congestion � air quality, for example � to be analyzed, and would also permit analysis of safety concerns, a matter of interest to Caltrans in particular.

In a panel discussion after Ganson's presentation, representatives of other agencies discussed the need for additional technical information and better collaboration to make the VMT standard work.

Mike Calandra, a senior transportation modeler at SANDAG, emphasized the need for accurate traffic counts in order to accurately estimate VMT and referred interested parties to a SANDAG white paper on the topic.

Meanwhile, Marc Birnbaum, senior statewide transportation analysis advisor at Caltrans, said the agency will probably want to work more closely with local agencies in implementing the new standard. "We're not a land use agency, so when it comes to the land use side, we've kind of been beggars trying to seek mitigation, he said. "On the transportation side, we have relied on planning at regional and city and county level to justify our projects. So we're going to have to work a lot closer (with local agencies) to ensure that VMT is addressed earlier."