Environmentalists’ opposition brewing to ‘road heavy’ transportation bond

The $20 billion transportation bond on the November ballot is getting a chilly reception from environmental organizations. Several major green groups are currently evaluating whether to remain neutral or actively oppose the bond for being too polluting and too road-heavy.

“There’s a funny game going on, with everyone looking around to see if anyone else is going to oppose it,” said Stuart Cohen, executive director of the Oakland-based Transportation and Land Use Coalition (TALC). “A lot of people want to oppose it.”

Gary Patton, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League (PCL), echoed these thoughts: “There are hardly any environmental organizations I know of who think the transportation bond has a strong environmental emphasis.”

Environmentalists are looking at several options. These range from fighting the bond in the near term, to possibly filing lawsuits or other initiatives down the line. The only thing that is off the table, they say, is actually supporting the transportation bond.

However, there are a number of factors that could hold back strong opposition. These include the potentially huge war chests that industry-backed bond supporters could throw into the campaigns. And there’s the popularity of the bond with the public: On July 28, the Field Poll reported that 54 percent of voters liked the transportation bond, while only half that number opposed it.

The next several weeks will tell if any concerted environmental opposition materializes. For instance, the Sierra Club of California board was unable to reach a decision over the bond during its meeting in July, according to state legislative director Bill Allayoud. They’ll revisit the issue when they convene in San Luis Obispo on Sept. 9 and 10. While Northern California board members are generally lined up against the bond, Allayoud said, Southern California members have been more supportive.

“We’ve been having a lively internal debate,” Allayoud said.

Similarly, the PCL and TALC boards also met in July and could not come to an agreement. The PCL board will meet later this month, TALC in early September. Other groups are going through similar debates.

The board of one statewide environmental group, the California Bicycle Coalition, voted in late July to fight the bond. The group felt betrayed by negotiations with legislators leading up to the bond agreement, said executive director Casey Butler. He added that his organization had compiled a list of $400 million important bike projects that have been approved but lack funding, saying that almost none of these will get money under the bond proposal.

“They nodded their heads and said everything was fine,” Butler said. “When it finally came out, there was literally nothing for biking and pedestrians.”

Like many other interests groups, environmentalists blanketed the Capitol from late fall through the spring, trying to get their say on the evolving set of bond packages. Over 50 groups, ranging from Environmental Defense to the American Lung Association of California to the Latino Issue Forum, signed onto a 10-point statement of goals for the bond package. This was distributed to key legislators on March 6.

These goals centered on smart-growth principles, air quality, goods movement and other concerns. They also wanted user fees to business, such as freight charges at ports, to prevent taxpayers from being stuck with the entire price tag. According to Patton, Butler and others, little of what they sought ended up in the final bond.

“From an environmental point of view, the transportation package can be expected to result in more sprawl,” Patton said.

The “sprawling” portions of the bond, however, are what allowed it to get the Republican support needed for passage, according to many of the legislators involved. For instance, the $1 billion set-aside for Highway 99 was key to bringing in Central Valley Republicans. But it was also the part opposed by many environmentalists, who want to curb the resource-heavy mode of development that has happened in recent years along the Highway 99 corridor.

For now, these groups say, they are evaluating their options. Several environmental leaders indicated that they did not want to undermine Democratic leaders who have been very supportive–and who faced a difficult process in getting the $4 billion in transit funding that they wanted in the bond. Allayoud said that Senate President Don Perata, D-Oakland, was instrumental in getting numerous environmental safeguards built in.

Patton and others noted that there will be numerous opportunities to affect the actual use of the money–for instance, the environmental review processes necessary to getting specific projects approved. Patton also indicated that his group and others would work to get the state government to abide by the terms of AB 857, a bill passed in 2002 that requires the state to take “smart growth” principles into account when building transportation infrastructure. The enforcement mechanism may have to be a lawsuit, Patton said, but that hopefully they could avoid that.

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