Strengthening SB 375: An Interview with Leadership Counsel's Julia Jordan

Back in 2007, ClimatePlan was founded by 11 different nonprofits for the sole purpose of ensuring AB32 / SB375 was passed and implemented in California. 14 years later, we’re still working to strengthen SB375 implementation throughout our state as we believe it’s a critical piece of the puzzle in creating healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities. In this current legislative session, there are several pieces of legislation to strengthen SB375. We recently sat down with Julia Jordan, Policy Coordinator at Leadership Counsel, to hear more about SB375 and what is being done to improve implementation of SB375 in the legislature. 

What is SB 375 and what does it mandate in California? 

SB 375 has been around since 2008. It essentially added a component to California’s regional transportation planning process to better address greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the transportation sector and specifically, GHGs from passenger vehicles (cars). Regional transportation plans have been around for even longer than that and require the creation of a 20-year vision for transportation investments and priorities. 

SB 375 requires each Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in California to include a “Sustainable Communities Strategy” (SCS) in their regional transportation plan. This plan demonstrates how each region will meet their GHG reduction targets, which are set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Different regions of the state have been putting together SCS plans to meet climate goals for the last 13 years and the process involves a lot of different agencies - CARB, the California Transportation Commission (CTC), local governments, transit agencies, and MPOs who are responsible for making those plans. The analysis in SCSs also includes information on that region’s transportation network, housing availability, affordability, land use and population data in the region and how that region is expecting to grow. The projects that are put in the SCS become eligible for local, state and federal funding, so it is critical that the public is able to equitably engage and inform the plans. 

More information on details of SB 375 can be found here in this resource from the Institute for Local Government. 

What legislation is coming up this session related to SB 375? 

Several bills were introduced in 2021 related to SB 375 that Leadership Counsel has been tracking. These include AB 1147 and SB 261. These bills attempt to improve SB 375, which has not resulted in its promise of emissions reductions and equitable investments in transportation.

1. AB1147 - Assemblymember Laura Friedman - This bill would require MPOs to create and submit a 2035 action plan to CARB that identifies areas of improvement needed and corrective actions to meet their 2035 GHG emissions reductions targets, summarize feedback from disadvantaged communities, identify measures to improve equity, designate high-priority investment areas, and identify local land use decisions that are in the way of reaching their goals. Unlike SB 261 (described below), the bill wouldn’t add any additional vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reduction targets or other metrics beyond 2035, but it does require each MPO to submit data to CARB about how transportation dollars have been spent in relation to the SCS and requires local governments (cities and counties) to make a “good faith effort” to actually implement their plans. It’s not clear yet what a “good faith effort” means and it is critical that this requirement results in tangible, equitable investments that support transportation projects in low-income, disadvantaged and under-resourced communities. 

Part of why this bill has survived through the cut-throat legislative process this year  is because it includes an incentive: the SCS Block Grant Program, which would provide grants to MPOs who have an approved 2035 Target Action Plan. Once the MPO makes the plan, submits it, and it’s approved, they would become eligible for extra funding to help them implement projects that will support their climate goals. In the past, some MPOs have said they didn’t have the resources or that there were too many barriers to meeting the targets and implementing innovative projects, so the author’s goal with this bill is to incentivize this approach. 

Lastly, the bill seeks to revise current program guidelines and project selection criteria to pilot innovative and transformative active transportation projects, including  (1) 15-minute cities/communities where people can bike anywhere in 15 minutes, and (2) Bicycle Highway Pilot - a pilot program to connect bike lanes so that people in metropolitan regions have the ability to get where they need to go just on a bike. While these pilot programs are in line with California’s climate goals, we also emphasize how important it is to ensure that innovative types of investment are also tailored to the unique needs of BIPOC and low-income rural, unincorporated areas of the state, helping them to also reduce vehicle miles traveled. 

AB 1147 has passed out of the Assembly and is currently on its way to its first Senate policy hearing.

2. SB261 - Senator Ben Allen - This bill would require CARB to create additional GHG emission reduction targets for the automobile and light truck sector for 2045 and 2050, extending the SCS targets that MPOs are required to meet. Right now, based on SB 375, the SCS targets are only set until 2035. This bill would also add a VMT metric requirement to the SCS for 2035, 2045 and 2050. This would essentially add a VMT metric in addition to the GHG metric for tracking emissions, which impacts how jurisdictions plan for housing, jobs, and how far folks have to travel to work or elsewhere. The VMT addition would change the planning approach--not just saying we can get everyone in an electric vehicle and that will take care of GHG emissions, but rather it would force MPOs to look at their planning more broadly and holistically. SB 261 would also require agencies to report bi-annually on various metrics that show how they’re implementing strategies in SCSs and it would give CARB more ability to determine whether the SCSs they have reviewed are providing accurate data on GHG and VMT metrics, and whether or not they feel the strategies are sufficient. It gives CARB more authority in terms of being able to reject an SCS that might have inaccurate information or insufficient strategies. 

However, after passing its first committee, SB 261 stalled in the Senate Transportation Committee and has become a 2-year bill, meaning that it may come back in 2022.  

Analysis On These Bills

Both of these bills are interesting approaches. There are, however, still a lot of limitations and issues that aren’t covered in each of these bills when it comes to strengthening SB375. Namely, on racial justice, equity, accountability and engagement. The communities that we work with in the San Joaquin and Eastern Coachella Valleys often are not well represented in RTP/SCS processes. Over the years, these lower-income communities of color who live in neighborhoods that have long been divested in and intentionally excluded from basic infrastructure, due to discrimination, continue to be left out of the planning and their priorities are often ignored. For example, active transportation infrastructure in unincorporated communities, electric vanpool or carshares in rural neighborhoods, and innovative mobility and land use policies that prioritize equity consistently fall to the back of the project lists, if they make it there at all. These bills still don’t do enough to address this.

What makes legislation related to SB375 challenging in the legislature? 

SB 375 can be challenging for community-based advocates to engage on because it’s a technically difficult thing to understand with so many components that intersect between transportation, land use, climate, and housing, involving local, regional and state actors. Because the bill has been around for so long, and despite efforts by local advocates - who have known that the bill has not been working - it’s only been recently that there have been serious attempts to change the law in the legislature. It’s something that has lost steam because local community-based organizations, residents and advocates sometimes feel that there are a lot of politics at the state level, making it difficult to engage, and also it’s been a long time since we’ve had folks in leadership in relevant legislative policy committees that really want to shift the way that transportation is funded and look more at equity, racial justice, equitable participation, sustainable communities, and democratic decision-making, in addition to reducing the focus on building new roads and expanding highways.  

There are a lot of tough questions in this type of legislation that are not just about transportation investments but are also about these broader social issues and addressing challenges that relate to land use, housing, and climate that a lot of decision makers have not wanted to take action on. It’s a lot about where the momentum is regarding why this type of bill is harder to engage on. In addition, there are strong forces in opposition to transformative, meaningful change.

What else needs to be included in these bills?

My colleagues working in the San Joaquin Valley right now - in Kern, Fresno, and other regions where the SCS process locally is starting to ramp up - are actively doing community outreach, having conversations about priorities that residents want to see in their RTP/SCS, and responding to the documents that MPOs are releasing. They’ve worked with the county on surveys to collect information and are having conversations with local city and county officials in the region to advocate for community-driven priorities. 

One of the issues we had in the last round of SCSs in some counties we work with, is that community input was not being taken seriously or being incorporated into the RTP/SCS. A lot of residents have needs for mobility that are pretty simple - sidewalks, adding lighting to navigate a street, more frequent transit, or even rural zero emission vanpools so you can get around in rural areas. There are a lot of different priorities. It might even be something like basic road repair, traffic calming and safety measures, or rehabilitation from flood damage in parts of Kern County. All of these asks are aligned with the goals of SB 375. And yet, we’re seeing that a lot of these asks are not being included.  

There is something going on there in terms of the participation of and accountability to the communities that have continued to be denied proper investment and basic resources, specifically the low income communities and communities of color, including underrepresented unincorporated areas that have grown through discriminatory and racist policies.  When it comes to the foundation of how do we as a whole state make our way to a climate-just future, it’s looking at what residents are actually saying, especially when it connects to the goals and plans we already have, and how do we make those projects come to life in a way that prioritizes undoing that harm from the past and the current injustices? 

These connections are not being made in these bills because they are complex, but it’s also possible to make some of these bold connections between equity, anti-racism and anti-discrimination and the solutions that we’re looking to for the future. What can our policy decisions now do to undo or remediate harm? That’s what our (Leadership Counsel’s) amendments have been trying to address on both AB1147 and SB261. There should be shared approaches for meeting our goals that include prioritizing low-income communities, communities of color, and communities that have been actively discriminated against for way too long. We’re talking about updating public participation measures, we’re talking about anti-displacement measures, and we’re talking about more accountability to regions that don’t meet their goals. We want to include health and air quality metrics in addition to GHG and VMT reductions and we’re talking about equitable access requirements. Ultimately it is about the equitable distribution of resources in a way that acknowledges the deep history of inequality that has tangible effects, which can be seen in the existing and lack of existing infrastructure in different communities. These communities’ input needs to be taken seriously and incorporated into RTP/SCSs. The broader issue here is not just talking about equity, but how do we embed equity into these bills to address very real and tangible issues related to underinvestment? 

What folks are already supporting this legislation and what can folks do to show their support for it? 

Leadership Counsel currently has a “support if amend” position on AB1147 and had the same position on SB261 when it stalled in committee. Currently, some of the other main supporters for AB1147 and SB261 include environmental and transportation advocates, such as American Lung Association and Coalition for Clean Air. There is no opposition currently on file for AB 1147. 

Folks who are looking to get involved can track the bill at, make comments at legislative hearings and/or contact legislative offices about the bill. 


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