Two years after approving a landmark anti-sprawl law to cut greenhouse gases, California is poised to adopt long-awaited rules targeting land-use and vehicle pollution in regions across the state.
The idea is to encourage regional planning that reduces carbon emissions to levels set by the state over the next three decades. One way to do that, for example, is to cut into commute times by reconfiguring housing developments and having peoples’ homes closer to work. Less driving means less fuel consumed, less greenhouse gas.
The new regulations – to be adopted this week by the Air Resources Board – stem from a 2008 bill, SB 375, authored by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and signed into law by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The rules address “one of the largest and most rapidly growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions – the vehicle miles an average California family travels. Poor land use and transportation decisions have left an increasing number of Californians stuck with long car commutes to meet basic needs,” according to the Planning and Conservation League.
This connection between long-term regional planning and air pollution makes the regulations of crucial interest to cities and counties – and to developers, commuters, environmentalists, business owners and just about everybody else.
The emphasis is on long-term: The locals, the regulators, environmentalists, the business community – all agree it won’t happen overnight.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not going to be easy. There have to be incentives, resources,” said Riverside Mayor Ronald Loveridge.
Loveridge has an unusual perspective in the proceedings: Apart from his role as mayor of a major California city, he also serves as a member of the ARB and will be voting on the regulations.
“There has been a fairly divisive discussion,” he added, over what emission targets are achievable and which ones aren’t.
Ironically, the fate on the November ballot of Proposition 23, the initiative to suspend California’s principal anti-greenhouse emissions law, will have little or no effect on the new regulations.
Steinberg’s bill, which faced a difficult fight in the Legislature and won approval, finally, because developers received environmental exemptions, requires the ARB to write the new rules.
On Thursday, the board is expected to adopt the board’s staff recommendations calling for greenhouse gas emissions be cut per capita by 7 percent to 8 percent by 2020, and reduced between 13 percent and 16 percent by 2035.
Not everyone likes those numbers, and many complained that they were crafted at the 11th hour without sufficient review.
On Sept. 2, the regional council of the Southern California Association of Governments voted to urge the ARB to require more modest targets, of 6 percent by 2020 and 8 percent by 2035.
Other regional government groups are more disposed toward the proposed ARB rules.
But SCAG is dubious, and its views carry weight: The group’s territory includes some 18 million people, about half of California’s population, in six counties. The nine-county organization in the San Francisco Bay area, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, also was skeptical, proposing 5 percent by 2020 and 5 percent more by 2035.
The lower numbers proposed by SCAG and MTC reflect fears that doing too much too quickly will disrupt the economy. One MTC analysis even suggested that the price of gasoline could rise above $9 per gallon – about triple what it is now. Critics also cited the possibility of the loss of federal transportation dollars, sharp increases in parking costs and a drain on local public services.
Politically, the crux of the issue is the power of regional government vs. the power of state government. There are 18 regional groups – known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs – in the state. About nine out of 10 Californians live in the four largest MPOs – the Bay Area, Southern California, Sacramento and San Diego.
Traditionally, land-use decisions are made by local officials and SB 375 does nothing to disturb that. But the new law does set regional goals, and this is where the tensions rise.
“What we really want to do is have a partnership with the ARB,” said Larry McCallon, a Highland city council member and the president of SCAG.
“It has put the housing and transportation forecasts together, and that is good. And it has focused attention on greenhouse gas reduction. But in reality, I believe our jurisdictions and our members are doing a lot of things to achieve what SB 375 wants to achieve without having that greenhouse gas law,” McCallon said. “The jurisdictions are doing better planning for compact development. This year, we’re putting forward a program, a sort of competition to see who can come up with the greatest greenhouse gas reductions, and we’ve asked the ARB to be a partner in this.”
Despite its potential impact, Steinberg’s SB 375, has not received widespread public attention – like a number of other major laws and regulations, it has been overshadowed by the attention to the state’s omnibus law to curb carbon emissions, AB 32.
And experts differ on what the long-range impact of the measure will have on sprawl and greenhouse gases.
Bill Fulton, a land-use analyst of the California Planning and Development Report, noted after the law was signed that SB 375 “is both more and less powerful than it’s advertised to be, and whether it leads to sweeping change depends on how aggressively California’s regional planning agencies implement it.”
“It’s more powerful than advertised because it contains potentially revolutionary changes in California’s arcane processes of regional planning for transportation and housing – largely by mandating the creation of “sustainable” regional growth plans.
“But,” he added, “it’s less than revolutionary on the land-use front, largely because it’s incentive-based. Despite the headlines, the law doesn’t ‘tie state transportation funding to land use;’ it merely charges regional planning agencies, which are run by local elected officials, with making sure their own funding decisions are consistent with the new regional plans. Local governments don’t have to comply with the plans.”
But whatever the ultimate impact of SB 375, the regional nature of the debate is valuable, Loveridge said.
“Since I’ve been on SCAG, this is the first time there has been a serious discussion about the future of transportation, housing and the quality of life.”