Just won: The chance to move San Diego forward

Guest post by Stuart Cohen, Executive Director, TransForm

In a momentous 2-1 opinion released on November 24, 2014, environmental groups in San Diego won an important round in court over SANDAG, San Diego’s regional transportation and planning agency.

The lawsuit began in 2011, when the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity, and Sierra Club, along with the California Attorney General’s Office, sued SANDAG under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). They alleged that SANDAG did not adequately consider the climate impacts of its Regional Transportation Plan.

Looking forward to 2050
The case hinged on the fact that SANDAG only analyzed the plan’s impacts using greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions targets for the years 2020 and 2035. This is what is required under the State’s landmark SB 375.

However, the environmental groups made the case that SANDAG should have analyzed the plan’s projected GHG emissions for 2050. This was based on a 2005 Executive Order by then-Governor Schwarzenegger, which called for reducing GHG emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.  This distinction is especially important because SANDAG’s plan actually shows increasing GHG emissions per capita after 2035.

SANDAG lost in the trial court, and now has lost again on appeal [appellate decision PDF].

Though SANDAG may still appeal to the California Supreme Court, I hope they instead use this as an opportunity to create a more visionary plan, with more options for reducing driving and GHGs.

The decision: instead of inducing demand, reduce trips
The court made some key findings that may reverberate to other regional plans—beyond elevating the Executive Order to an environmental “threshold of significance.”

Perhaps most important is the finding that project alternatives need to include “induced demand.” That is, the idea that if you build roads, more people will drive. Some of SANDAG’s proposed greenhouse gas benefits were based on the assumption that expanding roads and reducing congestion would increase car speeds and result in better gas mileage.

The court didn’t buy it.

Instead, the Majority Opinion quotes the region’s Climate Action Strategy, which explicitly states that “measures to relieve congestion also may induce additional vehicle travel during uncongested periods, particularly over the long-term, which can partially or fully offset the greenhouse gas reductions achieved in the short-term from congestion relief.” The Opinion says that SANDAG needs an alternative that focuses on “significantly reducing vehicle trips” (page 32).

For more detail, including excerpts of the fiery 38-page minority opinion, see this legal analysis.

Alternatives to highways
While San Diego advocates for sustainability and social equity have differing priorities, there is broad agreement that the root of the problem is this: SANDAG’s transportation plan is an intense front-loaded highway and road expansion program.

I fully agree that highways are not the answer (see the TransForm and ClimatePlan RTP analysis). San Diego already has an extensive system of highways and arterial roads; the primary problem is that so many people want to use them at the exact same moment: weekdays at 8 am and 5 pm. Plus, building more roads is incredibly expensive: highway projects and connectors would consume over $22 billion (2010 dollars – RTP page 5-13) through 2050, and $10 billion more for maintenance and rehabilitation. By supporting more auto-oriented development, this continued focus on highway expansion actually leads to more trips.

There are two alternative scenarios circulating now:

•    The 50-10 Transit Plan: One alternative has been proposed by the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. CNFF’s 50-10 Transit Plan calls for building the transit and active transportation projects in SANDAG’s 2050 RTP up front, in ten years, instead of waiting until 2050. The focus is on supporting growth in the urban core. To fund this, highway projects would be pushed back or eliminated. The 50-10 plan focuses fairly narrowly on transportation to address the RTP’s excessive focus on highways.
•    Circulate San Diego’s broader approach: Circulate San Diego, together with a coalition of organizations, has proposed a third scenario for this RTP update, which relies on transit, bike/walk, and other changes. This broader scenario is promising: more on this below.

Practical constraints and considerations
First, though, I’ll take a moment to ground these scenarios in reality. An ideal transportation system should maximize environmental and social benefits while reducing costs for taxpayers. To make realistic recommendations to do that, we need to understand the constraints SANDAG faces, and the underlying statutes governing RTPs. These constraints include:

1) TransNet funds are constrained: TransNet is San Diego’s transportation sales-tax measure, which lasts until 2048. TransNet projects, both highway and transit, dominate the RTP’s committed project list. While SANDAG can revisit and change many of these projects with a two-thirds vote of the board, a comprehensive program review is years away. SANDAG is also interested in going back to the voters for another funding measure in 2016, and does not want to revisit priorities of a funding measure that only recently started.

2) Operating funds are needed: Most sources of state and federal funding cannot be “flexed” from capital to operations. And because of federal requirements that RTPs are “financially constrained,” it is not possible to simply assume more transit projects will be built without the funding to operate. Thus, SANDAG can only go so far in bringing transit projects forward without a reasonable financial plan.

3) New funding is already factored in: The passage of a new source of operating funds is already assumed as part of the constrained revenue scenario (federal requirements allow such assumptions, as long as they are reasonable). In other words, even to get to the service levels outlined in this RTP, another funding measure will likely need to go before voters (especially with the outlook for federal transportation funding.)

4) Bus transit, vanpools and carpools need uncongested lanes: Currently, SANDAG’s projected mode shift away from single-occupancy vehicles is based on a future where carpools, vanpools and transit vehicles can flow freely on a system of existing HOV/carpool lanes and a great number of proposed “managed lanes.” Also known as High Occupancy Toll lanes or “Express lanes” in some places, these managed lanes are essentially carpool lanes that let solo drivers in for a fee. Any plan for improving transportation choices with fewer road expansions would have to account for the fact that San Diego’s road system has few carpool and managed lanes now.

5) Modeling tools will miss some benefits: Unfortunately, the 50-10 Transit Plan won’t look good when it’s run through a transportation model. There are a few reasons for this. First, SANDAG is currently just using one land-use scenario, whereas most of the benefit of moving transit early is its power to actually shape future land use, to be more walkable and focused on infill.  Second, the all-important horizon year of 2050 would contain the same transit projects as SANDAG’s current plan; it’s just that they would be built earlier. A snapshot of 2050 would show them performing at the same level. Third, there would be a large additional cost for operating the transit for a longer time; this could mean that modeling the 50-10 plan (without land use and other changes from the baseline) would show no benefit and a large added cost. Plus, if SANDAG scales back their highway program as part of the 50-10 scenario it would lead to less effective Rapid Bus systems, vanpools and carpooling than SANDAG’s current plan (plus a whole lot of congestion).

What is SANDAG doing now?
SANDAG’s Board of Directors is going into closed session this Friday, December 5, to discuss their legal options. In the meantime, they are updating the RTP (which is now called “San Diego Forward”) to be adopted by July 2015.

SANDAG will now consider an approach very like that of the 50-10 plan. As SANDAG’s November newsletter says, “In September, the SANDAG Board of Directors selected a mix of transportation projects and programs – called the preferred revenue-constrained transportation network – for San Diego Forward: The Regional Plan…. The Board asked staff to develop and analyze an ‘accelerated alternative transportation network’ that calls for building all the planned public transit and active transportation projects in the first 10 years of the plan…. [emphasis added] The accelerated network would include specific transit and bike/pedestrian projects to be built sooner, along with investments in transit service frequencies, commuter outreach, and the implementation of existing and emerging technologies. Staff also will analyze the cost of moving the projects forward and operating the services.”

This analysis will be conducted outside the regular EIR process, and assessed by SANDAG’s board in February. While it is certainly good that SANDAG’s creating this new scenario, and considering strategies beyond just transit, it has a few fatal flaws as currently designed that will make it perform poorly in modeling (as outlined in #5 above).

What should SANDAG do?
TransForm is calling on SANDAG to consider a scenario that will:

1) Focus on reducing vehicle-miles of travel.
Reducing VMT should be the primary metric. The Majority Opinion correctly pointed out that the focus thus far has been on congestion relief, with a long-term cost, leading to greater vehicle travel.

2) Change land-use projections.
Even though baseline land-use projections have improved significantly from previous plans, there is still a significant amount of job and housing sprawl projected (much of which is supported with SANDAG investments.) As called out in the Circulate San Diego et al. letter, this can be supported by setting aside funds from “TransNet Local Streets and Roads” and elsewhere, to reward cities and towns that accommodate and help fund the construction of lower-income homes in the region’s Transit Priority and Smart Growth Opportunity Areas.

3) Cut costs to cover expenses.
Building transit early will mean significantly more operating costs; to offset that, overall costs must be reduced, primarily by cutting road expansion. Otherwise this scenario will not be adoptable, now or in a future plan.

4) Expand highway capacity, without widening roads.
SANDAG’s proposed bus and vanpool network depends on free-flowing lanes. That is why the Circulate San Diego letter calls on SANDAG to “consider converting select general-purpose lanes to HOT lanes, and using the revenue for transit and vanpooling, before costly expansions are included.”

recent TransForm report shows how this can work, by converting a regular lane in each direction to an express lane. This would save money, reduce environmental impact, and free up funds to put towards better transportation choices.  We belive these should be called EcoLanes because they would cost about 90% less highway expansions, and thus have a full Express network implemented much sooner than SANDAG’s full plan. Spurred on by our report, San Mateo County transportation officials voted overwhelmingly to analyze TransForm’s proposal to take the far left lane and convert it to HOT.  There is also growing State-level support for pilot projects. SANDAG was a pioneer with Managed Lanes on I-15, and this is a chance for them to continue breaking new ground.

5) Dramatically expand demand management strategies.
From carsharing to free transit pass programs to subsidized vanpools, the evidence is in: reducing demand works, and is one of the least expensive ways to achieve greenhouse-gas reductions. Smarter parking management is another area of great opportunity. These programs will be key to reducing the demand for road expansion. The Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission anticipates a 1.5% reduction from a massive expansion of carsharing alone, and recently put out a call for projects to jumpstart that. (Importantly, the grants are prioritized for the 16 cities taking on the most housing growth.)

“Public understanding of the full range of choices is critical to the success of the process,” says the Circulate San Diego letter. SANDAG has certainly started many good programs, from Safe Routes to School to vanpooling. But these are not enough.

At this point, it’s time for SANDAG to stop appealing the decision, and instead use their resources to model scenarios that can create a sustainable, affordable future.

That’s what will truly move San Diego forward.

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