Transforming traffic analysis

Green City: San Francisco will be the first city in California to create a mitigation fee, so other cities are taking notes
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news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY A court injunction against new bicycle projects in San Francisco (see "Stationary biking," 5/16/07) could get lifted next year, thanks to environmental studies released Nov. 26 and headed to the Board of Supervisors next month. But it's a subtle, technical change in how city officials analyze traffic impacts that could have a more far-reaching implications.

It's called Level of Service Reform and it would change the triggering mechanism for when projects need to conduct full-blown environmental impact reports, an expensive and time-consuming requirement that led to the three-year bike project injunction. And LOS reform has been rattling around the city bureaucracy long before the Guardian wrote about it two-and-a-half years ago ("The slow lane," 5/17/06).

"It's either wonderful that I started working on this in 2002, or it's embarrassing," Rachel Hiatt of the San Francisco Transportation Authority told a Nov. 19 meeting of TransForm (formerly the Transportation and Land Use Coalition) on the subject.

The California Environmental Quality Act of 1970 requires EIRs for projects with potentially significant environmental impacts, as is the case when the level of service (LOS) at an intersection could be changed. LOS is measured by the amount of time it takes a car to pass through a given area. The time consumed by the car is often referred to as control delay. Measured by grades A through F, control delay per motor vehicle times of up to 30 seconds (E grade) are acceptable in San Francisco.

Designating sections of certain busy streets to accommodate a bike lane would affect the control delay, thereby earning the area a lower LOS grade. Since cars now essentially have priority over alternative forms of transportation, many potential bike lanes have been stranded by the LOS standard.

City officials are working to replace the LOS measure with a new one based on auto trips generated (ATG), using 1 ATG as the threshold for an EIR. Projects that generate no car trips will not be seen as having any environmental impact, thereby moving through the approval process quicker and cheaper.

"LOS needs to be taken out of the picture," Hiatt said.

The argument for LOS replacement is not solely about the need to accommodate other transit modes, but about lowering costs and making government more efficient. Hiatt outlined other problems with the current measure as the failure to accurately gauge environmental impact, failure to reflect the city's "transit-first" policy priorities, and an inefficient CEQA review process.

Development advisor Mike Yarne of the San Francisco Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development said that if the city wants to topple LOS, the Transit Authority has a case to make. "What the TA needs to show is that ATG is a more effective proxy to calculate environmental harm," Yarne said.

The city is also considering instituting a mitigation fee to be paid by project sponsors to compensate for environmental impact. Proceeds from the fee will be used to enhance all existing modes of transit, pedestrian safety, and could even include planting trees.

"The fee will go toward making people move faster," Yarne said.

Yarne admits that it could be a little difficult to make both changes at once. San Francisco will be the first city in California to create a mitigation fee, so other cities are taking notes.

"It would be quite an accomplishment if we could make it happen. It's never been done," explained Yarne, noting that most cities have come to recognize that CEQA does not work well in urban areas.

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