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Posts from the "CEQA" Category

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The End for LOS in California? State Wants Input on a New Planning Metric

With little fanfare, California is considering a change in how it measures transportation impacts that could herald a major change in environmental law. SB 743, passed and signed into law in September, is a potential game changer because it could completely remove LOS — Level of Service, a measure of car traffic congestion — from the list of tools that must be used to analyze environmental impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act. As the state contemplates a broader, more sustainable metric to use for smarter urban planning, the public is invited to weigh in on what the LOS replacement should look like.

Streetsblog USA doesn’t pull punches when describing why many oppose”Level of Service” metrics. Image: Andy Singer

CEQA requires new projects, be they highways or housing units or basketball stadiums, to analyze potential environmental changes created by the proposed project. In copious detail. Water, air, land, noise, plants, animals: any physical aspect of the existing area that might be affected negatively must be analyzed.

For a variety of historical reasons, traffic congestion has crept into this group of environmental impacts under CEQA and become part of the law. Congestion is analyzed by measuring the flow of traffic at intersections (how many vehicles get through in a set amount of time) and grading those intersections on their performance. Planners refer to this as LOS, for Level of Service.

The irony of LOS is that CEQA requires mitigation when projects cause delay to automobile traffic—even if the projects create better conditions for other road users, such as transit riders, bicyclists, or pedestrians. Thus the San Francisco Bike Plan was held up for years because of a lawsuit claiming the city did not take into account the negative affects bike infrastructure would have on LOS.

Streetsblog covered SB 743 as it was passed last year, but at the time we missed a nuance that makes it an even bigger potential change for CEQA and planning. At first read it looked like the LOS provision, tacked onto a bill written to streamline environmental review for a new Sacramento Kings basketball stadium, applied only to areas designated as “Transit Priority Areas,” defined as within a ½ mile of high quality transit. In some places, this covers very large areas: for example, most of San Francisco is so designated because of its dense transit networks. This alone could make a huge difference in the way environmental impact reports are handled for many projects.

Neither Streetsblog nor many advocates monitoring the legislation realized on the first read is that the new law gives the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) the discretion to come up with a substitute for LOS and apply it throughout the state—not just to urban areas “well served by transit,” but everywhere. And to all projects.

The long-term results of using LOS as a measure of environmental impact have been argued about for years and explained well elsewhere. Removing it from the CEQA process has the potential to profoundly affect the way cities are planned and built. And while some of the larger cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, actively pursue the question of whether traffic impact is an appropriate measure of environmental impact (and working on their own substitute measures), not every locale is happy about it.

OPR is asking for early feedback on two items: a draft list of goals it wants the new criteria to meet, and a preliminary list of possible replacement measures for LOS. These are both described in detail in this report, and summarized below. The deadline is this Friday, February 14, and comments can be sent to: ceqa.guidelines@ceres.ca.gov. Future drafts will incorporate feedback received now, with the goal of preparing a final draft by July 1, 2014.

Below is an explanation of why many people oppose using LOS as a measure to analyze environmental impacts. Streetsblog is also reaching out to municipal leaders who use LOS for a future story explaining why they may not want to remove it entirely from CEQA.

Read more…

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New “Kings Arena” CEQA Bill Would Still Nix LOS in “Transit Priority Areas”

Steinberg’s hasty press conference held after the passage of SB 743

Last night, both California’s Senate and Assembly passed SB 743, Senator Darrell Steinberg’s legislation that replaced his original CEQA reform bill, SB 731, which promised to end the reign of Level of Service (LOS)  in California urban planning. SB 743 would still eliminate of LOS to a more limited extent, and although it’s unclear if Governor Jerry Brown will sign the bill, he reportedly assured Steinberg he would do so because he favors a more tepid CEQA reform bill. SB 731 was drafted primarily to streamline environmental review for a new stadium for the Sacramento Kings basketball team.

While SB 731 would have brought the statewide elimination of LOS — a car-centric transportation planning metric that basically puts the movement of cars over everything else — as part of environmental review, SB 743 would still nix the metric for projects within designated transit priority areas (TPAs). Large swaths of most urban areas are considered TPAs, which are defined as areas within a ½-mile of high quality transit: a rail stop or a bus corridor that provides or will provide at least 15-minute frequency service during peak hours by the year 2035.

According to the Sacramento Bee, Steinberg said he would add into SB 743 “a provision at the governor’s request that gives the governor’s Office of Planning and Research the go-ahead to develop a new way of measuring traffic impacts of major projects, based on total ‘vehicle miles traveled’ rather than intersection congestion.”

Darrell Steinberg. The Sacramento Bee reported, "Steinberg and Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, showed team pride by wearing purple ties for the occasion."

Despite the LOS victory, many advocates fumed that it didn’t go far enough. Not a single environmental group backed the legislation, and thirteen — including The Sierra Club, Trust South L.A., and the Planning and Conservation League — signed a letter blasting the legislation as a “gut-and-amend.” SB 731, Steinberg’s larger CEQA reform bill that didn’t pass, would have ended the requirement to use LOS for the entire state. Under current law, the impact of projects, even ones that are building bike lanes, must be measured based on how the project interrupts or supports the flow of car traffic. This has lead to the creation of wider, faster streets and the laying of more asphalt to “mitigate” those projects’ impacts.

While most environmentalists and transportation reformers agree that this change to LOS is a positive step, many are angered that SB 731 was shelved so that a basketball team owned by billionaires could get an expedited environmental review that would lack teeth because the legal options available to the opposition are greatly reduced.

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CEQA Reform Update: Is This the End for LOS?

Finally, some sanity may be coming to California’s most important environmental protection law, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Under current law, all projects, be they rail lines, bike plans, or new buildings would have to prove that it would not impact local driving times or it would have to complete a costly mitigation plan.

LOS, simplified. Image: Safe Routes California

Traffic plans and projections are routinely challenged by NIMBYs, which sometimes lead to delay of a project, such as the implementation of San Francisco’s bike plan, and other times just lead to local annoyance, as the recently concluded lawsuit against Los Angeles’ Expo Line.

However, a series of amendments to SB 731 written by Senator Darrell Steinberg changes that standard. Instead of looking at Level of Service, (LOS) the barometer of how quickly cars can move through the street, projects will be evaluated on how they impact air quality, noise, safety and overall mobility. For years, CEQA studies have led to more fast moving traffic, more sprawl and more dangerous communities.

An early version of the amendments only applied the LOS change to transit districts, but that was amended to include the entire state in yesterday’s committee hearings.

In the Sacramento Bee, Curt Johanson of the California Infill Builder’s Association notes that these changes will finally have CEQA working as it’s supposed to. By measuring whether or not a project increases traffic instead of congestion, air pollution instead of drive time, and public safety instead of speed, Steinberg is putting the E back in CEQA:

“By moving toward these real environmental measures, Steinberg’s bill makes good projects in the right locations easier and ensures more thorough environmental review of all projects. Projects would get rewarded for reducing overall driving and burdened if they contribute to more, resulting in a solution that both business advocates and environmentalists can agree is healthy in the long term for all Californians.”

Autumn Bernstein, the director of Climate Plan, concurs. She writes of the updated SB 731, “Its a game-changer for bike lanes, BRT projects, and infill developments have been stymied by CEQA’s outdated fixation on Level of Service.”

Odds of 731 passing have increased since Streetsblog discussed the legislation last week. Steinberg shelved popular legislation such as SB 1, which would have funded portions of other smart growth legislation, to focus on CEQA reform. SB 731 cleared the Assembly Natural Resources Committee yesterday and is expected to be heard by the Assembly Local Government Committee today. That leaves two days for a vote of the full Assembly and a hastily assembled conference committee between the Assembly and Senate, before heading to the Governor’s desk. SB 731 passed in the Senate earlier this year.

While Bernstein praised the changes to LOS that now appear in the legislation, she is even more enthused by changes  that will help prevent physical or economic displacement, commonly thought of as gentrification. Read more…

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Bike/Ped Advocates Back Wiener’s Move to Curb Superfluous CEQA Appeals

Supervisor Scott Wiener wants to reform the current CEQA appeals process, which puts projects like the bike and pedestrian safety measures on Fell and Oak Streets at risk of unnecessary delay. Photo: Aaron Bialick

In November, a handful of opponents filed a CEQA appeal against the Fell and Oak Street bike and pedestrian improvements after construction on the project had already begun. Fortunately, the Board of Supervisors dismissed their claims that the project required a full environmental impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act, and the appeal didn’t delay work on the project. But that’s not always the case with projects that improve street safety.

Pedestrian and bicycle advocates hope that legislation making its way through the Board of Supervisors will curb such late — and costly — CEQA appeals. Supervisor Scott Wiener, who authored the legislation, said it wouldn’t make any changes to CEQA itself, which is a state law. Rather, it would establish local deadlines to appeal development and street projects that are declared exempt from CEQA’s onerous EIR requirements. Such deadlines were mandated by the state legislature over a decade ago, and San Francisco is the only California city which has yet to comply with that mandate.

Supervisor Scott Wiener. Photo: Scott Wiener’s Office via SF Examiner

“When an appeal of a categorical exemption or negative declaration comes into the Board of Supervisors, we don’t really know if it’s even timely. The rules are that unclear,” said Wiener. “The Planning Department doesn’t know, the clerk of the Board of Supervisors doesn’t know, the people who filed the appeal often don’t know,” leading the City Attorney to determine the answer, which can take up to two weeks, he said.

The confusing appeal process has often been used as a tool to slow or stop projects that have already undergone extensive vetting via community meetings, analysis, and city approvals. The SF Bike Plan was held up for four years after a lawsuit was filed by Rob Anderson, forcing the city to do an extensive re-analysis that lead to no changes to the original plan. Even for relatively small projects like the protected bike lanes and pedestrian bulb-outs on Fell and Oak, the appeals process has added “unnecessary difficulty in making progress on our city’s stated goals,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition. “Our organization has unfortunately seen a lot of the bumps in the road.”

“It takes far too long to make improvements that save people’s lives,” said Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe, who pointed out that the organization actually filed a CEQA appeal in 2009 against the EIR for the planned CityPlace Mall (since re-named Market Street Place) which led to the sponsor agreeing to pay fees towards bike and pedestrian safety improvements. “Walk SF supports [Wiener's] legislation because we believe we still can use this process to make necessary appeals, but we’re also very concerned about how the current process slows down critical improvements for pedestrian safety,” she said.

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California Bike Coalition Sets An Ambitious Reform Agenda for 2013

Dave Snyder. Photo:Richard Masoner/Cycleicious

The top priority for California bicycle advocates this year? To ensure state funding for biking and walking gets better, not worse.

That’s according to California Bicycle Coalition (CalBike) President Dave Snyder, who recently spoke with Streetsblog to lay out the organization’s goals and strategies in its 2013 legislative agenda, both in the capitol and across the state.

While CalBike’s priorities include a variety of reforms and improvements, the largest concern is threats and opportunities to bicycle and pedestrian funding posed by Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed budget. “Our biggest goal remains to influence the state budget, and see it move forward in a good way,” Snyder said.

The Governor combined bicycle and pedestrian funding into one “active transportation” category for next year’s budget, a change from how budgeting had been accomplished in the past. On one hand, the Governor promises to streamline the application process for these projects. On the other, the most recent draft includes a 10 percent decrease in funding for “active transportation” from last year.

But the budget isn’t the only major issue in Sacramento. One of the hottest issues in the Capitol is how to reform the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) which creates the environmental review process that development and transportation projects must undergo. In the last legislative session, the legislature and governor passed A.B. 2245, which created a streamlined process for many bicycle projects.

Meanwhile, some of the largest environmental groups in the state are working to reform CEQA again. Recent reports show that most CEQA lawsuits are being aimed at public projects, mixed-use development and infill projects. Rather than look for a sponsor for new bicycle reforms, Snyder is working with those groups to change the legislation to make it easier and easier for cities to embrace and implement bicycle projects.

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Supes Reject Legal Appeal Against Fell/Oak Bikeways and Ped Upgrades

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A legal appeal filed against protected bike lanes and pedestrian safety upgrades on three blocks of Fell and Oak Streets was rejected unanimously by the Board of Supervisors yesterday. Construction on the project, currently underway the SF Municipal Transportation Agency beginning with the Fell Street protected bike lane, will not be halted by the appeal.

Photo: SFBC

Supervisors dismissed the opponents’ claims that the project required an environmental impact report (EIR) under the California Environmental Quality Act, which could have added a year or more to the project. In a statement, the SF Bicycle Coalition hailed the board “for voting to uphold the city’s thorough work, and against creating a precedent that curb extensions and bikeways require an unprecedented and unreasonable amount of environmental review.”

The appeal [PDF], largely seen as a gambit to slow the project, was filed by Mark Brennan, a developer who owns a building on Oak and Divisadero Street; Howard Chabner, a disability rights advocate; and Ted Loewenberg, president of the Haight-Ashbury Improvement Association. Another appeal could be filed at the state level, though it’s unclear if the opponents plan to do so.

At issue was the Planning Department’s determination that the project didn’t require an EIR under CEQA because it only includes “minor alterations” to existing streets and won’t remove traffic lanes, except for a part-time turning lane on Oak.

The project will re-purpose about 100 on-street car parking spaces from Fell and Oak to create protected bike lanes separated from motor traffic by concrete planters (while replacing about half of those spaces on nearby streets). Much of the striping work on Fell is already done.

Although CEQA doesn’t require an EIR for any of the changes in the project, since they’re considered “minor alterations” to the street, Chabner argued that they go beyond that definition when taken altogether, and that the impacts of a separate plan to overhaul nearby Masonic Boulevard should be considered as well.

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The Sinister Logic of Old-School Traffic Engineering, in XtraNormal

There is a strange world where up is down, in is out, right is wrong, and black is white. I’m not just talking about the San Francisco Planning Department’s indefensible trip-generation analysis for new parking spaces.

No, I mean the world of old-school traffic engineers, where improving safety on the streets means reducing conflicts with cars (you know, like pesky pedestrians), widening lanes and softening turning radii to allow traffic to move more freely. This is the world of Caltrans, for one, and it’s antithetical to making your city more livable.

Though the state has started to reform its highway and street design guidelines, city planners throughout the Bay Area can attest to the difficulty of adding bus bulbs, traffic calming or bicycle infrastructure in the face of engineers with their traffic bibles telling them there is no such thing as an acceptable green bike lane.

This excellent XtraNormal cartoon, which was produced by Strong Towns, lays out the problem, complete with jargon that will make your head spin.

If you have eight minutes and a wonky sense of humor/indignation, I recommend you watch. If eight minutes seems like a long time, imagine going up against these guys for a decade to reverse the violent upheaval perpetrated on your neighborhood decades prior in the name of progress.

Gives me chills.

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CA Poised to Reform Auto-Centric Level of Service Environmental Rules

California administrative rulemakers recently moved a step closer to reforming the section of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that has compelled cities to focus undue attention on the age-old Automobile Level of Service (LOS) threshold for impacts of new projects and has led to the construction of excess off-street parking.

SF-traffic_1.jpgPhoto: pbo31
The state's Natural Resources Agency released the newest revisions of Appendix G of the CEQA guidelines (the Environmental Checklist Form) late on Friday afternoon, setting off a flurry of emails from proponents of LOS reform, including officials in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, as well as transit and bicycle advocates.

As we documented on Streetsblog, over-reliance on LOS considerations by planners has traditionally led to widening intersections and roadways to improve the flow of automobile traffic at the expense of other modes. If the amendments made by Natural Resources stand and are formalized by January 1, 2010, the deadline for the changes, cities and counties around the state will have the flexibility to consider capacity metrics like LOS alongside other metrics that prioritize transit, pedestrians, and cyclists. The new rules would even allow city planners to walk away from LOS completely.

From the introduction to the proposed changes:

The intent of those amendments was to recognize a lead agency’s discretion to choose its own methodology for determining transportation-related impacts of a project while ensuring that all components of a circulation system are addressed in the analysis. The proposed revisions would refocus the question from the capacity of the circulation system to the performance of the circulation system as indicated in an applicable plan or ordinance. The proposed revisions also clarify and update language regarding safety considerations and other mass transit and non-motorized transportation issues.

In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom's Office of Economic and Workforce Development and the City Attorney have been collaborating with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) to replace LOS with a new metric for measuring the projected environmental impacts of a development or a project by the total number of new automobile trips it will generate (ATG). The city and county believe this new metric would move the focus away from how many cars move through a particular intersection to how many additional cars would be added to the total traffic picture. By default, this metric would prioritize transit improvements, bicycle infrastructure, and pedestrian safety measures, none of which would add automobile trips.

"This is a fantastic development with tremendous impact for transportation analysis in California," said TA Executive Director Jose Luis Moscovich in an email. "We are optimistic that, after two rounds of hearings and comments, the CEQA guidelines will drop references to congestion and automobile LOS. The Authority is proud to have worked hard with our partners at the Mayor's office and City Attorney's office to bring about this exciting reform."

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Paradise LOSt (Part III): California’s Revolutionary Plan to Overhaul Transportation Analysis

Market_St.jpg
Transportation consultants and planners associated with the San Francisco Transportation Authority's (TA) ATG working group sent excited bursts of email to each other earlier this month about a new development coming from the state Office of Planning and Research (OPR), the body responsible for writing and amending the CEQA guidelines related to transportation and traffic.  The OPR had adopted much of the spirit of the working group's recommendations and proposed an amendment (PDF) to CEQA guidelines that de-emphasized LOS and indicated that it would be much better to use measures for vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reductions such as ATG.

"How on earth did this happen?  Did we actually have an impact?" someone involved asked in one of the emails.  This same commenter related a chain of events wherein representatives from the TA and consultants had been up to Sacramento to lobby the OPR only weeks before the amendment was adopted and had been given no indication by staff that a change so momentous was in the offing.

The specific changes to the CEQA Environmental Checklist for transportation also call for the elimination of parking supply as an environmental factor of CEQA and focus attention on the desirability of reducing VMT (PDF).

Said Jeffrey Tumlin of Nelson Nygaard Consulting:
What I like about OPR's wording is that it maintains the traffic section that everyone expects to see, but gives a very different analysis.  With vehicle trips rather than congestion as the potential impact, one would not ever be able to widen a road to reduce the impact.  Widening the road would increase the impact by inducing more vehicle trips!  To reduce the impact, one needs to reduce the number of vehicle trips at the source.

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Paradise LOSt (Part II): Turning Automobility on Its Head

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One of the unintended consequences of San Francisco’s bicycle injunction, which Rob Anderson and fellow NIMBYs will likely rue for some time to come, is the arduous thought and labor that advocates and professional planners have invested in doing away with LOS all together.  

Two arguments in the debate over LOS have emerged. One calls for abandoning LOS but replacing it with a metric that prioritizes transit, cycling, and walking before cars, assuming that three decades of legal precedent would require some replacement metric. Another argues for walking away from LOS entirely, given that it is merely a convention and not a law.

Shortly after releasing the report on LOS deficiencies, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) convened a strategic working group in the spring of 2004 comprised of the Planning Department’s Office of Major Environmental Assessment (MEA), the MTA, user advocacy group representatives, and industry practitioners.  The working group developed a replacement for LOS analysis that became known as auto trip generation, or ATG (PDF).

ATG avoids intersection-specific analysis, instead evaluating new developments based on the number of car trips they would add to the aggregate traffic picture and assessing a transit mitigation fee based on the total number of additional trips.  The working group debated for some over the threshold number of trips that would trigger the mitigation.  Given that San Francisco is lined on three sides by water and is essentially built out to capacity, any new development that adds vehicle trips to the matrix will have an impact on overall traffic, so the threshold they decided on is one trip.

As Rachel Hiatt, senior transportation planner for the TA, reported at Transportation Research Board in 2005 (PDF):
The Transit First policy of the City Charter recognizes that some short-term auto congestion is a predictable and unavoidable consequence of implementing Transit First policies, since mode shift will occur gradually as the transit, bicycle and pedestrian networks are improved. A measure of auto delay – auto LOS – is inconsistent with the Transit First policy for this reason. A measure of auto trips generated, in contrast, recognizes that adding additional automobile trips to San Francisco streets is environmentally undesirable, while allowing for automobile congestion impacts that may result from improving the city’s networks for transit, walking, and cycling.

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