Perhaps fittingly, one of the state's oldest, stateliest cities will be the first to institute one of the most sophisticated advances in planning tools since the slide rule. Not long ago, the City of Pasadena implemented metrics that measure projects' impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act in terms of vehicle miles traveled rather than level of service.
Pasadena is not only the first city in the state to adopt VMT metrics but may also be the first in the nation.
Pasadena's switch both responds to and precedes the adoption of Senate Bill 743. Passed in 2013 as an amendment to the California Environmental Quality Act, SB 743 will require cities to evaluate traffic impacts according to vehicle miles traveled, not to traditional level-of-service thresholds.
There could have been more fireworks at the USF debate, but it was fierce enough. Sponsored by the USF Law School's Environmental Law Society with support from local bar groups, the debate featured a speaker who is distinctly not a convert to the Office of Planning and Research (OPR) view of CEQA transportation impact metrics: Holland & Knight's Jennifer Hernandez.
On the USF panel with Hernandez were NRDC's Eaken and UCLA Prof. Ethan Elkind, both of whom had published indignant responses to the Holland & Knight article. Elkind's called the article a "misleading diatribe". Eaken's blog post titled, "Setting the record straight on the Governor's CEQA reform proposal" didn't say directly what it was answering but did announce "an effort to clarify misconceptions and stop the ill-intended rumors" before launching into a string of arguments, including "Fact: Suggestions of Mitigation Measures are Just Suggestions..."
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.
It can sound like a simple step, to end Level of Service (LOS) metrics in CEQA transportation analysis. The more conceptually elegant Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) metric is easy to welcome in the abstract, with its incentives for shared and active transportation, its arguably simpler calculation methods, its potential to realign CEQA analysis with state climate protection law – and most of all, its escape from the addictive spiral of induced demand for broad, free-flowing highways that, under the logic of LOS analysis, always need widening again.
But in early August the Governor's Office of Planning and Research (OPR) published a detailed discussion draft setting out an alternative transportation impacts metric in compliance with last year's SB 743 mandate. And alongside the big-picture discussions of environmentally conscious innovation, the technical arguments began.
The Governor's Office of Planning & Research is a month late in issuing its final recommendation on whether to replace "level of service" as the measurement of significant transportation impacts in transit priority areas under the California Environmental Quality Act. But there's not much mystery: OPR has sent clear signals that it is going to propose replacing LOS with vehicle miles traveled, or VMT.