'Cause how many of you that sit and judge me, ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?

chart data.jpg

It seems only appropriate to invoke Buck Owens' classic if we're going to talk about Kern County. One week ago this evening, the Kern County Council of Governments (COG) voted unanimously to adopt the region’s first ever Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy (RTP/SCS) to implement California’s climate and land use law - SB 375. As I’ve written in the past, we feel the SB 375 process presents the San Joaquin Valley with a tremendous opportunity. With the third most polluted air in the country[i] in 2013, the 5th fastest growth rate of all California counties in 2012,[ii] and now a steady state-wide stream of funding to support sustainable communities from cap and trade proceeds, Kern County has much to gain from sustainable planning.

So did they seize the opportunity? Let’s start with the good news.

What we like about this plan:

  • Thanks to the work of California Walks, Bike Bakersfield, Kern-County based Greenfield Walks, and the testimonies of dozens of youth fighting for more transportation choices, Kern’s plan contains seven times more funding both for transit (exclusive of high speed rail) and for bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure compared with their last long range transportation plan adopted in 2011.[iii] Thanks partly to these new investments, Kern is projecting a 4,000% increase in the number of jobs and homes that will be located within ½ mile of high frequency transit.[iv]
  • The American Lung Associations’ engagement emphasizing the effect of transportation and land use on air quality and health contributed to the shift in funding away from building more highways. The South Beltway project—a sprawl-inducing ring road—was delayed past the current plan horizon year of 2040, effectively removing it from this plan, and the West Beltway was delayed for nine years to 2025, leaving us much more time to fight to permanently eliminate this project. Together Kern will save more than one billion dollars by not building these unsustainable projects. [v]
  • The Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability; Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment; and Building Healthy Communities Partners led the efforts to ensure that the needs and priorities of low income rural communities were not left unmet. Advocacy and robust community engagement led to an improved balance of jobs and housing in four key low income communities and an allocation of $500,000 in the next fiscal year to support small cities and disadvantaged unincorporated communities to engage in smart growth planning.
  • And with the Council of Infill Builders’ research and outreach, Kern has started to plan for the projected changes in future housing demand: the adopted plan’s land use scenario accommodates 21% of new development in infill areas as opposed to only 1% in the 2011 plan, and it places more emphasis on multi-family and small-lot single family homes in an effort to create more walkable communities. By re-investing in existing communities, Kern County estimates it will save $300 million on infrastructure costs and 10% on water consumption.[vi] (The chart below compares highlights of the new plan to the old.)[vii]

 Where does this plan fall short?

  • NRDC and a number of colleagues advocated for what we called the Balanced Growth Scenario with a mix of new housing for the next 20 years to provide more options of walkable single-family homes, townhomes, and apartments. We felt this was more than reasonable since the Council of Infill Builder’s study claimed that even by 2050 there would be NO NEW DEMAND for large lot single family homes over existing 2010 supply. While Kern did evaluate this Balanced Growth Scenario and found it to have to be the environmentally superior alternative, they chose not to adopt it. In addition, regrettably, ill-conceived highway projects such as the Centennial Corridor—slated to demolish over 200 homes in an historic neighborhood—are still being pursued.
  • The Southern Sierra Partnership highlighted the value of Kern’s natural and working landscapes and scored some conservation wins including making mitigation a requirement for any project that benefits from consistency with the SCS. The American Farmland Trust contributed an excellent report on the critical importance of Valley farmlands. Unfortunately, the RTP/SCS is projected to consume over 91 square miles of farmland, working landscapes and other open space, [viii]  an area more than half the size of Bakersfield.
  • In addition to policy and investment concerns, there are some serious issues with Kern’s modeling and accounting of greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions. As Boardmember Daniel Sperling said at the May 22 California Air Resources Board (ARB) hearing: “We can't assert achievements of the targets when we don't have the technical capabilities to do it, when we're making faulty assumptions, when the analyses are uncertain. And so to call these SCSs is problematic.” In addition to Valley-wide issues such as accounting for inter-regional trips, two issues are particularly at the fore in Kern: 
    • Kern projects that even their “Business-As-Usual” Scenario based on old, existing policies and investments easily meets the ARB-assigned 10% GHG reduction targets. Something needs to change.
    • The highly-discussed Table 4-7 in Kern’s RTP/SCS attempts to show their GHG accounting by assigning a reduction value to individual strategies like land use. But the table also lists assumptions. As explained by ARB staff member Terry Roberts, “If we take Kern's SCS data as an example, they have identified large greenhouse gas reductions from fuel costs and the recession, but these are actually model assumptions, not SCS strategies."[ix] Certainly, SB 375 never intended for regions to rely on assumptions to meet their GHG reduction targets. However, the story may be more nuanced, because every line in Kern’s table is a factor that interacts with every other one: that is, it may be perfectly reasonable to assume that if the cost of driving increases in the future, then more people will take transit and walk and therefore reduce GHG emissions. But, how do we account for that shift? Was it the increased costs or the planned shifts in land use and transportation? Perhaps the factors are synergistic where the effects of each are greater in the presence of the other? This all leads me to what needs to happen next.

 What’s the work ahead of us?

  • NRDC and partners: We are excited by the continuing work in Kern to implement GHG-reducing land use and transportation strategies by supporting the updates of the Kern County and City of Bakersfield General Plans and working with cities to encourage infill development. In addition, we are currently actively engaged with ARB during their assessment of the modeling methods to ensure Kern is legitimately meeting their targets through land use and transportation strategies.
  • Kern COG: In addition to strong implementation, Kern should start to think about how to improve their planning in the next round. Rural communities and small cities of Kern County suffer from inadequate transportation options and must be better served with transportation investments, an issue that we would like to see Kern COG more seriously address both in the next RTP, as well as the next Transportation Improvement Program (the projects they will put forth to receive actual dollars in the next 1-2 years.) Similarly, both through the next long range plan as well as short term funding allocation documents, funding for active transportation and transit should be prioritized from secured rather than speculative sources such as future tax increases and bonds.[x]
  • ARB: During the May 22 ARB hearing, ARB Board members Sperling and Balmes made clear that if they had to vote on these plans, they would be hard pressed to approve them, based on all the concerns raised. We understand that the ARB is working with modeling experts to test the sensitivity of Kern’s models to changes in land use and transportation. If ARB concludes that Kern has put before them a plan that would only achieve its target based primarily on continued economic recession and high gas prices, rather than strategies and policies, then I would hope the ARB would consider very seriously the precedent they would be setting by approving this plan.

So, did Kern seize the opportunity? While the plan is not everything we had hoped for, Kern County made some undeniable progress this time around. That said, there are still some critical, outstanding questions that ARB must answer and boldly act on to ensure the integrity of SB 375. No surprise this item will be the first order of business when the ARB’s reconvenes on July 25th.

 This blog post was co-authored by Ella Wise, Urban Solutions Consultant to NRDC.

[i] American Lung Association. 2014 State of the Air Report

[ii] Kern County Draft RTP/SCS, p. 3-1

[iii] Kern County COG, Sustainable Community Strategy Highlights Kern Council of Governments

[iv] Kern County COG, Sustainable Community Strategy Highlights Kern Council of Governments. This significant increase reflects both new homes and jobs planned to locate near new and existing transit, as well as new transit service that will be extended to serve existing jobs and homes.  

[v] Specifically, the total cost is $1,025,086,000. The projected cost of the West Beltway in 2025 is $209,293,000; from 2031-2035 it is $205,793,000; and the South Beltway would cost $610,000,000 after 2040, according to the  Kern County Draft RTP/SCS, Table 5-2.

[vi] Kern County COG, Sustainable Community Strategy Highlights Kern Council of Governments

[vii] Based on 2014 Kern Draft RTP EIR Tables 4-11.3 and 5.0-1

[viii] According to an analysis of the scenarios’ co-benefits by Calthorpe Associates

[ix] May 22 ARB Public Hearing

[x] Kern County Draft RTP/SCS, p. 6-1 to 6-6.