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California Legislation Watch: Weekly Update

For social media coverage of California’s statewide transportation issues, follow Melanie @currymel on Twitter or like the Streetsblog California Facebook page.

Here’s Streetsblog’s weekly highlight of legislation and events related to sustainable transportation at the California capitol.

  • News on the implementation of S.B. 743, which removes Automobile Level of Service from consideration as an environmental impact in areas with robust transit. The state’s Office of Planning and Research released the public comments it has received on its update of CEQA guidelines and its draft guidelines for S.B. 743, which Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) introduced and was passed last year. S.B. 743 requires the OPR to come up with a new urban planning metric to replace LOS that measures the effect of development and transportation projects on all traffic, not just car drivers. Proponents are enthusiastic about eliminating an outdated, car-centric measure that has led to wider, faster streets. Critics worry that longer have the means to require developers to improve streets. The next steps: drafting the actual guidelines, releasing them for public comment in late spring, and producing a final draft version of the guidelines by July 1.
  • Caltrans published a new mission statement: “Provide a safe, sustainable, integrated and efficient transportation system to enhance California’s economy and livability.” This is a vast improvement over the old one, “Caltrans improves mobility across California,” and it contains all the right buzzwords. The mission statement was the first item on the Early Action Plan outlined in the State Smart Transportation Initiative report urging deep reforms in Caltrans. Check — now to work.
  • More extensive senate hearings saw debates about the governor’s cap-and-trade expenditure plan and high-speed rail, this time in the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation. CA High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales defended the use of cap-and-trade funds for high speed rail, and Senator Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) attacked cap-and-trade as a slush fund and high-speed rail as an expensive project that will produce a “puny” reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Plenty of comments from the Legislative Analyst’s Office and various interest groups.
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Excitement, Confusion Over Proposed Removal of LOS in CEQA

This famous demonstration of how much space is taken to move people via different modes has an important lesson for those thinking LOS is the best measure of transportation impacts.

With today’s deadline looming for comments on new rules governing the way the state analyzes transportation planning impacts, many transportation planners and engineers remain confused about what the new rules might mean while others join advocates in hoping that new rules will create better projects.

SB 743, signed into law last year, removes traffic Level of Service (LOS), a measure of traffic congestion, from the list of environmental impact metrics that have to be used under the California Environmental Quality Act when planning development and transportation projects. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) has to decide on a substitute for LOS that more broadly measures a project’s transportation impacts. Although SB 743 says LOS can only be replaced in dense urban areas with robust transit access, OPR can also decide to apply that new metric everywhere in the state.

Focusing on LOS has severely hindered the expansion of bike lanes in California, including a lawsuit that delayed San Francisco’s bike plan for years, because it might affect delay car traffic. Critics of LOS have long argued that using a metric that solely measures the movement of cars, rather than the movement of people, makes for an inefficient transportation system and requires costly measures to “mitigate” LOS impacts.

“CEQA rules were so backward that you had to analyze the environmental impact of replacing a ‘car’ lane with a bike lane but you could remove a bike lane to add a car lane with no analysis required whatsoever,” said Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition.

“It’s not just for bikes, either, but for any street improvement that involves reducing car capacity,” he added, “which is to say transit lanes, sidewalk bulbouts, or all manner of changes that make a place more livable, safer, and more prosperous, if a bit more congested with automobiles.”

Another example would be converting a mixed traffic lane to a bus-only lane. In the past couple of years, there has been a debate in Los Angeles over expanding the Wilshire Bus Only Lane. Studies showed a net increase in vehicle congestion in the remaining mixed traffic lanes with a major reduction in travel time for buses. More people ride the bus on Wilshire Boulevard than drive, but that didn’t stop opponents of the bus line from charging that the project was bad for commuters.

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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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Like Bike Lanes and Transit? Hope You Like the Sacramento Kings Too.

Note: This post originally appeared at Climate Plan.

What do the hoop dreams of a software mogul have to do with CEQA reform? As of last night, everything. In the waning days of session, strange things happen in Sacramento.

If this person happens to like bike lanes, they probably love SB 734. Photo: Associated Press

Late last night, Senate President pro Tem Steinberg announced that he cut a deal with Governor Brown to abandon SB 731, his main CEQA reform bill, in favor of a new gut-and-amend bill, SB 743, that would allow the Sacramento Kings to build a new arena in the ruins of the K Street shopping center without litigation delay. This is, of course, an attempt to stave off the courtship of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who wants to move the Kings to Seattle.

Roll your eyes, dear reader, but then read on.  Apparently some provisions of SB 731 have been grafted onto the stadium bill.  ClimatePlan and our CEQA + Infill Dialogue spent months working to influence SB 731. We hoped to align CEQA with our goals of building sustainable and equitable communities – and we had a lot of success. Of particular interest to us ClimatePlanners were two provisions in SB 731 that would:

* Reform CEQA’s transportation analysis to focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and car trips, rather that the outdated and car-centric metric known as Level of Service (LOS). This would be a game changer for transit-oriented development, bike lanes, bus rapid transit and other projects that are good for GHGs but bad for cars.  It would also eliminate insufficient parking as a standalone impact under CEQA.

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San Jose Provides Model for Bay Area Growth and Transportation Needs

pbo31_sj_bus_small.jpgPhoto: pbo31

In our ongoing coverage of the adverse affects of traffic engineers' over-reliance on automobile level of service (LOS) measurements, we've examined how new amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) would allow local jurisdictions greater freedom in choosing whether they want to develop their cities for cars or for transit, cycling, and livable streets.  Simply put, if the CEQA amendments are codified, cities all over the state could become more like San Jose.

While San Francisco labors with the development of its auto trip generation (ATG) metric and could spend a year or more setting a development impact fee that would go to improving transit, cycling and pedestrian safety, San Jose completed a citywide transportation environmental impact statement (EIS) in 2002 and adopted its vision for sustainable, transit-oriented growth in 2005 [PDF]. What's more, this transportation and land-use plan moves San Jose ahead of the curve compared to other cities in meeting the requirements under AB 32 (carbon reduction targets) and SB 375 (limiting sprawl).

"We want to grow up, not out," said Hans Larsen, Acting Director of San Jose's Department of Transportation (DOT), noting the city couldn't accommodate the 400,000 new residents expected by 2030 within San Jose's current boundaries by adding more sprawling developments and more traffic. "We had a policy conflict between our growth plan, which was really smart-growth, and our transportation management policies, which have historically been oriented toward providing enough capacity for cars."

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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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The Rise of an Evil Anti-Car Multinational Conglomerate

As soothsayers of the Sacred RAC priesthood like Rob Anderson will let you know time and again on his own blog, and sometimes on ours, all this talk of bike plans, Level-of-Service reform, parking restrictions in new development, and greening boulevards is nothing more than a thinly-veiled assault on our national right to drive freely and not pay for it.

At first I thought he was demented, but after recent developments, I'm starting to come around.  MTA traffic engineers are re-timing signals for bicycle speeds, the Mayor's office has vowed to push forward at least 40 bicycle routes as soon as the bicycle injunction is lifted, and the DPW is trying out radical street closures to give space back to pedestrians.

And now this, the last straw, a new plot to bring down the private automobile, one horizontal corduroy khaki pant at a time.

A tipster forwarded this video showing the Cordarounds Bike-to-Work (egad!) pant that has reflective seams and pockets for greater visibility while riding a bicycle at night, and the cyclist is clearly having too much fun:

After snooping around a bit, including a call to the maker of these troublingly fashionable pants, Streetsblog San Francisco has unwittingly stumbled upon a sinister ruse to make cyclists more visible while maintaining a dapper cut, which will inevitably lead to more cycling, which will lead to more bike nuts infiltrating City Hall and demanding bike lanes. 

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

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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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