No strings attached

The passage of $42 billion in infrastructure bonds may make 2007 a watershed year for smart growth in the state of California. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on who you are–and just how successful some smart-growth-minded legislators are at attaching strings to those new pots of housing and transportation money.

“Forty-billion dollars is a very significant inducement to do good–or to do bad,” said Gary Patton, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League.

Patton, along with other environmental advocates and like-minded legislators, wants to make sure that the windfall advances more environmentally friendly development–not just more development.

“The danger is that we could continue spending that money in ways that make our lives worse,” Patton said.

Along those lines, Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, is planning to introduce legislation that would encourage local governments to reduce “vehicle miles traveled”–the total number of miles that people drive in a local jurisdiction–by 10 percent over the next 25 years.

“I believe we have a tremendous opportunity presented by the infrastructure bonds,” Jones said.

Jones said he’s looking at mechanisms by which a local government would better shot at getting its transportation and housing projects funded by demonstrating that it has such a VMT-reduction plan ready to implement.

How local governments get to those 10-percent reductions would be up to them, Jones explained. “It could be encouraging mixed-use development, it could be revitalizing aging commercial corridors, it could be investing in public transportation.”

Jones argues that reducing VMTs would address a host of environmental and social problems–including traffic congestion, sprawl and the state’s significant contribution to global warming. Cars and trucks account for about 40 percent of all the greenhouse-gas pollution in California.

“If we do this successfully in just the top-four major metropolitan areas, we’ll get more CO2 reduction than the governor is calling for,” Jones said, referring to the executive order signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger that requires a 10-percent reduction in the carbon content used in vehicle fuels.

Assemblyman Mark DeSaulnier D-Martinez, is taking a different tack–pushing for a statewide growth-management agency that would keep an eye on how local governments manage their growth and help them put smart-growth principles into practice.

DeSaulnier argued that local governments often can’t or won’t coordinate their growth-management policies with those of their neighbors. The most forward-thinking plans don’t mean much if they are never implemented, he says. And the competition for tax dollars often locks local governments into competition with each other over who can develop faster and farther.
“We tend to think of ourselves in California as being cutting edge in all things. But on growth management, we’ve been absolutely dysfunctional,” DeSaulnier said.
He is using as his model the California Air Resources Board. In this case, it would have 11 members and include a mix of local-government representatives, public-health officers, land-use and environmental-quality experts and representatives from the developer community. All would be appointed by the governor.

“We need an independent board that looks at a more long-range vision than we currently can do in this building,” DeSaulnier said.

Patton said he wasn’t very familiar with DeSaulnier’s plan, but worried that any “new state bureaucracy” is going to be a tough sell in the Legislature. Patton thinks the real action is going to be in the budget bill and its trailer bills.
While the bonds have little language in them encouraging smart growth, the housing bond (Proposition 1C) does set aside $850 million for infrastructure that supports development of infill housing–housing in already existing urban areas as opposed to new suburban development.

“But what does that really mean?” Patton asked. “Does that mean I can just add some units to my subdivision out in the sticks and call it infill?” The budget process, Patton said, is where smart growth principles can get their teeth.
The smart-growth effort in the state Legislature is likely to run into opposition from the building industry.

“The voters weren’t asked to vote for smart growth or habitat conservation or achieving certain air-quality objectives,” argued Tim Coyle, senior vice president for governmental affairs for the California Building Industry Association.

“People are stuck in traffic. They’re in search of affordable housing. They’re concerned about overcrowded classrooms” and likely won’t be impressed by a raft of new smart-growth programs. “If you try to get too cute, voters are going to say ‘Wait a minute, that’s not what we voted for.’ And the next time–and there’s going to be a next time–they’re going to say no.”

Patton admits he’s unsure just how much political support is out there for aggressive smart growth programs. But he’s hopeful the bonds will “first do no harm.”

“As Will Rogers said, ‘When you’re in a hole, the first thing you need to do is stop digging,'” Patton explained.

“We’ve got to try and make sure those bond investments don’t dig the hole deeper.”

Contact Cosmo Garvin at

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