By Hutton Marshall / SanDiego350.org
Climate change is a local issue that reaches every corner of the globe. Human activities, especially burning coal, oil and gas, are pumping heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. More than any other time in human history, we’re seeing unlivable marine habitats, rising seas that threaten to subsume coastal societies, and, on land, increases in extreme weather including droughts, floods and severe storms. The changes are happening everywhere, but the effects are felt locally. And the solutions have to come from changes we make in every community.
At SanDiego350, a local nonprofit fighting climate change, we believe that San Diego is at an important crossroads where we must decide how we will reduce our contribution to Earth’s looming climate crisis. Once a month in the San Diego Free Press we’ll discuss some of these issues, and how San Diegans can help address them.
To start, we’ll talk about an important struggle happening right now that will affect San Diegans for generations to come. The San Diego region’s 35-year transportation plan is growing famous throughout California—for all the wrong reasons. It threatens to detrimentally raise carbon emissions in Southern California and set an irreversible legal precedent for the rest of the state to do the same.
The 2050 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) was created by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), a planning agency made up of city and county governments, which handles regional issues. The RTP will be one of the most important things SANDAG does this decade—not just because it will shape how the region grows and changes over the next 35 years. It will be a huge determinant of San Diego County’s carbon footprint in the 21st century, as transportation accounts for almost half (44.5%) of greenhouse gas emissions in San Diego County.
The proposed RTP will allocate $214 billion toward various transportation-related projects like freeway expansion, public transit and bikeways. While it does eventually allocate a healthy portion of money toward public transit and other relatively green methods of transportation, it puts spending on expanded freeways at the front of the line.
The bulk of the public transportation spending would come decades later. That’s unacceptable for our transportation future, because it keeps us dependent on cars, with all the congestion, frustration, cost and greenhouse-gas emissions that go with them.
Shortly after the RTP was approved, the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, Sierra Club and several other environmental groups sued SANDAG over the plan, rightly pointing to its flawed environmental impact report, which underestimated how freeway expansion would increase greenhouse gas emission levels. The lawsuit was later joined by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
The result? The courts have sided twice against SANDAG, most recently in the California Court of Appeals.
One would hope this would be enough to convince SANDAG’s board of directors that this plan needs changing, but we aren’t so lucky. The board voted almost unanimously to appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court, which has agreed to review the case.
It’s hard to see how SANDAG will argue this appeal, because the current RTP clearly fails to comply with state laws and executive orders calling for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued an Executive Order called for California to cut its GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and to cut emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Following suit, the state legislature passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), which echoes Schwarzenegger’s reduction target for 2020, and the state senate is expected to extend the life of AB 32 to 2050 in September. Finally, earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an Executive Order requiring the state to cut its emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, setting an intermediate benchmark to previous goals.
SANDAG’s proposed RTP is set to meet exactly none of these requirements, increasing rather than decreasing emissions over its 35-year timeline.
The most likely outcome is that the California courts will once again strike down SANDAG’s plan, forcing the planning agency, finally, to follow the law. Our regional leaders should do better than reluctantly meeting the minimum requirement for laws to protect the climate. We should be leading with a plan that shows how sustainable a region’s transportation can be. Instead, we’re trying to sneak by with the opposite.
The detrimental fallout from this battle goes beyond the future of the San Diego region. Ours is the first regional transportation plan to be adopted following the enactment of the aforementioned state statutes on climate change. Should SANDAG somehow succeed in their appeal to the state’s highest court, it would set a detrimental precedent for other regional plans to ignore important statewide goals reducing carbon emissions.
Supporters of the Supreme Court appeal say that the expensive legal process is necessary in order to flesh out the law’s effect on future regional planning.
Nonetheless, should SANDAG’s appeal somehow prevail, that would seriously undermine California’s future efforts to combat climate change.
What we have now is a planning agency that will be scolded by the state for its unwillingness to comply to clear state laws and executive orders. This is hardly an inspiration for others in the region—like cities now in the process of formulating their own transportation plans—to take bold action against climate change rather than contributing to it.
There are those arguing that a regional transportation plan that reduces auto use in the way we need to isn’t economically feasible, that such a change is too drastic. Yet, maintaining millions of individual cars and thousands of miles of roads is just an inherently expensive way to move people around a city. We would argue that in the long run, a greater focus on public transit and active transportation would be more efficient and cost-effective. In fact, we can’t afford not to do it.
Some may also argue that regional governments do not have money to spend on transit and bikeways, but SANDAG already has the discretion to shift freeway expansion funds to projects expanding transit and active transportation infrastructure.
For those who would argue that substantial emissions cuts are not feasible, there are already two regional plans that show how it can be done, so it’s not as though there’s no model for SANDAG to follow. The L.A. region—with its notoriously congested streets—has produced a plan that actually meets the state GHG reduction goals.
Similarly, the city of San Diego, the largest municipality in SANDAG, has a Climate Action Plan designed to surpass the state’s greenhouse-gas reduction requirements.
The city’s plan does this partly by making transportation—the city’s biggest pollution source—a key part of the solution. Surely if Los Angeles and the City of San Diego are capable of planning for a green transportation future, the San Diego region represented by SANDAG can be as well.
SANDAG has also defended its plan by saying that the RTP will be reviewed and potentially altered every four years. The problem with that argument is that it just puts off actions that need to be taken now. This is a deferral of the debate that needs to happen today, not years down the line.
We do need to act now. Scientists are telling us that we need to act promptly to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Delaying action will only force us to take more drastic, and thus more expensive action later.
The RTP which proposes more freeway expansion isn’t even a realistic solution to the problem of traffic congestion. As with previous freeway lane additions, it ultimately results in more cars stuck in traffic than before. Multiple studies confirm this. We need to focus on projects that get people out of their cars, rather than incentivizing the opposite.
Proponents of the plan have also argued that the RTP meets other state goals pertaining specifically to Vehicle Miles Traveled (a standard measurement in transportation planning) contained in Senate Bill 375, which fleshes out certain automobile-related aspects of the Global Warming Solutions Act. But judging the RTP by that metric only reinforces SANDAG’s car-centric mindset.
A more holistic approach that looks beyond how much we’re driving is needed if we as a region are to grow responsibly for the next 40 years. Claiming to reduce Vehicle Miles Travelled is an empty gesture if the RTP still raises overall greenhouse gas emissions.
We need an alternative to the Regional Transportation Plan that spends money for trolley, train and bus line expansion before it expands freeways. Bike lanes should be constructed sooner too. We’ve already wasted too much money arguing over whether the plan meets the bare minimum in the eyes of the law—a mediocre standard for a region with aspirations of becoming a global economic leader.
All of this points to a clear conclusion: Create a viable RTP alternative that prioritizes spending on green transportation, gets people out of their cars and onto bikes and transit, and protects future generations of San Diegans. Let’s create a plan that San Diegans 40 years from now will thank us for making.