Air Board Reviews First Sustainable Communities Strategy to Implement SB 375

Nearly one year to the date after the California Air Resources Board set the first-in-the-nation regional greenhouse gas targets for land use and transportation planning under SB 375, the same cast of characters reconvened yesterday to review the first plan to implement the law—San Diego’s Sustainable Communities Strategy.

Chairwoman Nichols opened the Board discussion by noting just how remarkable it is that stakeholders have come together to support these plans:

“Here we are in the midst of horrible economic times, and we are seeing the business community, the builders, the chamber and local governments supporting plans to reduce VMT. This is astonishing…here we are talking about decoupling growth in our state and growth in our economy from growth in emissions from the transportation system.”

Everyone praised SANDAG for going first, and it is hard to deny that SANDAG did take some impressive steps with this first plan. Most notably, SANDAG sets a high bar for the other MPOs with its assumed housing mix, projecting a full 80% of new housing units as multi-family, the majority of which are near transit. This housing mix is highly reflective of coming market demand for houses in walkable neighborhoods near transit and amenities, and was endorsed by the California Building Industry Association’s Richard Lyon, who noted that “it’s time to get this show on the road.”

Despite some impressive plan elements, many were disappointed with the bigger picture. Although the ARB staff found San Diego’s plan likely to meet its GHG targets, the concern of the day was with the plan’s undeniable backsliding after early progress. While the plan claims to achieve a 14% per capita GHG emissions reduction by 2020, 15 years later, after SANDAG spends billions on transit, biking and walking infrastructure, there is backsliding to 13% which further erodes to 9% by the year 2050.

The Air Board staff report highlighted this trend as a problem (p. 44).

“During the target setting process, including meetings of the Regional Targets Advisory Committee, there was an expectation that the benefits of an SCS would increase with time given the nature of land use patterns and transportation systems. ARB set targets with that expectation. While early work on the San Diego RTP seemed to indicate that trend, when the draft SCS was completed the 2020 benefits were much greater than expected and slightly greater than the 2035 benefits.”

We congratulate SANDAG on nearing completion of the first SCS, but agree with Boardmember Sperling that this plan does not yet set SANDAG on the path to sustainability.  SANDAG staff will bring their final plan to their Board for adoption in late October. We’d rather not see SANDAG’s progress overshadowed by this backsliding trend, and we strongly urge SANDAG to make the following commitments in their final plan:

  1. As the Air Board staff report noted, “San Diego’s next planning process would benefit from additional land use scenario planning coupled with a reassessment of the transportation system to further support the region’s sustainability goals.” (p.45)  SANDAG should commit to developing more aggressive integrated land use and transportation scenarios that would reverse the "backsliding" in the out years, through their upcoming Regional Comprehensive Plan as well as their next RTP. 
  2. As the Air Board staff recommends, SANDAG should “reassess its transportation network.”  SANDAG should include a discussion on project prioritization in its next RTP, and identify how each project is aligned with current goals, including GHG emissions reduction. A discussion of options and constraints in reordering the project delivery schedule, to deliver projects in earlier years to support the growth of transportation efficient communities, could shed light on further opportunities to reduce GHG emissions. SANDAG’s TransNet sales tax measure authorizes the SANDAG board to update the project lists by a 2/3 vote, so this exercise of envisioning alternative transportation networks which can achieve better GHG reductions is a practical one, especially if it makes more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.
  3. SANDAG should commit to develop, and not just "consider" developing an Early Action Program and implementation mechanism for active transportation investments. SANDAG took a praiseworthy action of allocating 3% of its plan funds for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, but makes no commitment as to when it will spend these dollars.  It does the region little good to wait until 2030 to make it safe to walk and bike. We need these investments now and SANDAG can and should make this commitment.
  4. As SANDAG moves ahead with selection of the next four years of projects for which it will program funding through its Federal Transportation Improvement Program (FTIP), we strongly encourage them to prioritize the projects which help move the region in the direction of sustainability. For example, the plan contains $53 billion of funding for transit, but 72% of that funding does not come until the year 2030. We would like to see project phasing which supports the growth of sustainable communities.  

We are eagerly watching to see what SANDAG can do in the next month to make sure they are, in the words of Dr. Sperling “making progress in terms of the fundamentals.”