By Justin P. Schlaefli, PE TE PTOE
On September 27, 2013, the way we look at transportation in California changed. On that date, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 743 into law, sending shockwaves through the transportation industry — which will be felt for years to come.
SB 743 involves a major change to the CEQA Guidelines requiring the use of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) metrics rather than level of service based metrics for measuring vehicle impacts on transportation facilities. The intent of this change is to reduce reliance on the automobile by encouraging development in “Transit Priority Areas” as well as remove disincentives to infill development and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While indeed serving critical goals, this change has secondary effects which influence the viability of many roadway improvement projects as well as impacting infrastructure funding mechanisms that California has relied on for decades.
While the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) has been engaged in drafting and re-drafting CEQA Guidelines for the past several years, the transportation industry is still catching up. Current versions of the draft guidelines include the following key points:
- Development within one-half mile of an existing major transit stops may be presumed to have a less than significant transportation impact. This mean development of this type may not be required to fund transportation infrastructure improvements.
- Transit, bike and pedestrian projects may be presumed to have a less than significant transportation impact making them easier to construct.
- Induced travel effects of major roadway capacity expansion projects are required to be analyzed meaning that road extensions and widenings may no longer be an infrastructure “improvement” but may have an “impact” under CEQA. This could impact the funding and viability of many infrastructure projects.
- Safety impacts of road widening projects may be considered significant
As a result of many of these changes, funding and planning for transportation and infrastructure projects must be revised to comply with the new rules and priorities. The transportation industry is already headed in this direction, but important questions remain. Fundamentally, the challenge of the future transportation professional will be how to do more with less. It is unfortunate that the characteristics that often occur in the highest congestion locations also occur in areas which are most impacted by the changes of SB 743.
For example, major transit lines often occur in areas with significant density and congestion. Additionally, infill development typically occurs in areas which are already built-out and often experience congestion. A large part of the funding for local transportation projects has historically come from impact fees driven by the rules of CEQA. With those rules changing, large projects in congested areas could avoid paying these fees or avoid constructing roadway infrastructure. Alternatively, proposed roadway infrastructure could be considered to cause a CEQA impact and therefore be rendered infeasible or have a significantly increased cost.
This leads to the conclusion that we must increase the effectiveness of the existing road system. This must be done in a way that is sensitive to all roadway users. This must also be done in a way that avoids costly projects which lack funding or which induce VMT or cause safety concerns for other modes of transportation.
We must do more with less.
A solution which enhances safety, considers the needs of all roadway users, is cost effective and which avoids major induced VMT is ideal. This means that the transportation professional must be willing to go beyond the “traditional” road improvement projects of the past several decades and must add more tools in the tool box. The successful transportation professional of the future will recognize that creative solutions and funding options will keep residents and stakeholders happy. The shelf life of our existing playbook is about to expire … time for a new set of plays!
About the author:
Justin P. Schlaefli, PE TE PTOE is President of Urban Systems Associates, Inc. based in Southern California. He has over 16 years of experience in the transportation industry working for both public and private clients. Questions about SB 743 or transportation solutions which might be the most effective under likely future guidelines, please contact Justin@urbansystems.net