Two More Down! SoCal and Sacramento do right in regional sustainability plans

Last Thursday, the implementation of SB 375 hit another milestone with the Air Resources Board’s (ARB) review of two more Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS)—from Southern California and Sacramento. ARB members heard staff presentations on the two plans, asked questions of the regional agency directors, and heard stakeholder reactions.

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) Plan

Many praised the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) plan for reducing congestion despite projections of four million new residents, for responding to shifting market trends by reversing its business as usual land use pattern, and for allocating 70% of its funds to transit.      

Several of the SCAG executive officers spoke about the plan and their strong commitment to its successful implementation.  Larry McCallon, President of the San Bernardino Association of Governments, former SCAG President, and Mayor of Highlands remarked: “We are committed to implementing it. This plan means nothing if it’s not implemented.”  ARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols called this process “the strongest step taken from the grassroots up in the direction of regional planning that I’ve ever seen.” And ARB Boardmember Ron Loveridge, himself an Inland Empire Mayor, described the work as “an historic effort.”

The plan takes some impressive steps.  While the last 25 years of growth in the region saw only 39% multi-family housing, SCAG faced facts and planned for 68% of 2035 growth in these settings.  Yet, SCAG could do more to align its transportation resources with its compelling new land use vision.

Boardmember D’Adamo urged SCAG to consider the Project Performance Assessment Process pioneered by the Bay Area as a means of considering the environmental and social impacts of each transportation project.  Boardmember Dan Sperling agreed, and stressed that a performance based approach to transportation funding needs to become the standard statewide.

We agree. SCAG’s $524 billion plan presents a compelling opportunity to evaluate whether each and every one of the proposed transportation projects is moving the region in the right direction. SCAG could start this process by evaluating all the projects in its four-year Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), due to be adopted this August.

To be fair, SCAG staff has been receptive to our requests for enhanced funding, as I blogged last week. Staff has been directed to identify new revenues for the Metrolink commuter rail system, active transportation, clean goods movement opportunities, compass blueprint funding, and improved health and equity monitoring.   We see Project Performance Assessment as a logical extension of these promising best practices.

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) Plan

After lunch, the Board reconvened to review the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) plan. Most stakeholders called the plan a model, noting that in spite of a 13% reduction in funding, the plan manages to increase bike lanes by 77% and nearly double transit service.  It also, remarkably, improves jobs-housing balance in 14 of 15 job centers.

Mike McKeever, SACOG Executive Director, said SACOG aims to flip commuting patterns on their head by 2035. Currently about 20% commute to work by transit and 60% by single occupant vehicle into the downtown Central Business District. By 2035, SACOG wants to reverse those numbers through building greater densities around transit stations and improving service. If they can pull it off, that would mark a truly impressive accomplishment.

To us, SACOG is an example of how this whole scenario planning process gets easier over time, since in a sense, SACOG has had a head start since adoption of its first Blueprint plan in 2005.

Going Forward: Implementation and Funding

A recurring theme of the day was implementation of these plans: the consensus seemed to be that the plans were quite promising and the real work is now to figure out how to realize the promise of these plans.

Steve Heminger called on the Air Board for increased collaboration “We need a new kind of partnership with your Board and with the state government.  At the same time that SB 375 targets were being handed down, the legislature was taking away redevelopment and transit dollars.”

Several, (NRDC included) urged the Air Board to prioritize cap and trade allocation revenues for SB 375 implementation, and use their weight with the legislature and the Governor to ensure that redevelopment is revived and refocused on SB 375 implementation.

At the close of the hearing, Nichols issued an appropriate challenge to the advocates to stay engaged, particularly when implementation of these plans gets tough. Challenge accepted. The environmental community has a mixed legacy around issues of growth, in too many cases opposing any growth, rather than supporting growth in locations that reduce environmental impacts. We, as a community, need to do a better job supporting growth where it will reduce impacts. In fact, this is exactly why NRDC adapted the well-known Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification program to include neighborhood development (LEED-ND)—to highlight the fact that certain kinds of growth can significantly reduce impacts.

The final Sustainable Communities Strategy/Regional Transportation Plans come before their respective Boards in April; SCAG will vote April 4th, SACOG will vote April 19th.