Article Features Julie Pierce

The Future of SB 375 Implementation and Regional Planning

Julie Pierce is a council member for the City of Clayton, chair of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority and president of the Association of Bay Area Governments; she also serves on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. In addition, Pierce is president of the California Association of Councils of Governments (CALCOG) — the state association for councils of governments, regional transportation planning agencies, transportation authorities and congestion management agencies. CALCOG’s board also includes representatives from the League and California State Association of Counties. For more information, visit or follow CALCOG on Twitter (@The_CALCOG).

I am a city council member, but I am also a regionalist. These are not mutually exclusive titles — each needs the other. Regional governments are built with and depend on the expertise of local officials. Because local government is the level of government closest to the people, we hear firsthand when potholes go unfilled or the garbage is not picked up.

But our residents live in regions. It’s not unusual for someone to make their home in one city but work in a second city, shop in a third and go to a fourth for recreation. Our residents expect their local governments to work together regionally.

Enter SB 375 (Steinberg, Chapter 728, Statutes of 2008), a law that requires a Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) to go beyond existing requirements and meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Implementing this policy at the regional level made sense to the Legislature because travel patterns could not be addressed on a city-by-city approach; it requires regional cooperation.

SB 375 also recognizes local authority and leverages the symbiotic relationship between local and regional planning. Local plans provide the baseline for all regional plans and investment decisions. Yet at some point, a transportation investment crosses local boundaries: A new bus line is funded, a road is built or a bike lane is created, and the land-use market responds. New homes are built, businesses spring up, and transit and freight routes are altered. Land-use investment drives transportation systems. And transportation investment drives land-use markets.

By the end of April 2015, all 18 metropolitan planning organizations in California will have adopted their first RTPs under SB 375. The San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), which was the first to adopt in 2011, will be adopting its second regional transportation plan in summer 2015. So it’s appropriate now to take stock of what SB 375 has — and has not — accomplished.

Changing the Conversation. Historians may ultimately conclude that SB 375 was more about conversation change than climate change. SB 375’s real power derives from spotlighting the RTP. In the past, these plans were barely understood by many local officials, much less by the public they represented. But SB 375 brought in stakeholders in a wonderful way. Suddenly, people (such as residents, local business owners, public health advocates, social justice groups and other stakeholders) could talk about the future of the transportation system, spotlighted by the RTP, in the same way they could engage in their local planning processes. This type of transparency and public engagement, which often involves passionate and sometimes conflicting input, can be an intense and challenging process, but it is the cornerstone of democracy and can only be good for our future.

Performance and Trajectory Are Key Measures. SB 375 added a performance metric — greenhouse gas reduction — to transportation funding, but did not say how to achieve that goal. Local and regional governments retain full discretion on how to achieve the goal. (The California Air Resources Board sets reduction targets for each region.) As a result, the appropriate way to review a particular plan is not by determining whether it includes a specific policy or practice but whether the trend line of greenhouse gas reduction and other key indicators for each unique region is improving at an appropriate pace with regard to the target.

Considerations of Fairness and Equity. Part of the conversation change created by SB 375 has been the increased participation of equity groups, such as advocates for disadvantaged communities and social justice. This is an area where we all can still do more. Because transportation and transit are critical elements to household economic independence, it is important to consider all voices in our transportation system. This means including modes and destinations that differ from those used in traditional transportation planning.

Litigation and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). As this issue of Western City goes to press, the California Supreme Court is considering whether to review the court of appeal’s decision in the first CEQA case brought against an RTP that includes a greenhouse reduction goal. That case was filed against the San Diego Association of Governments. Another environmental lawsuit has been filed against Merced County Association of Governments, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the San Francisco Bay Area has been the target of four lawsuits from environmentalists and conservative property groups.

Although CEQA lawsuits are not unusual, it is a little unsettling that this costly litigation involves elements of the RTP that may or may not occur. An RTP covers 20 to 35 years. But unlike a General Plan, federal law requires that the RTP be updated every four or five years. As a result, some of the litigation involves assumptions that are made about what may or may not happen in 20 years if all the revenue, population, economic and development assumptions hold true. Think about the events of the past five years that nobody would have predicted 20 years ago, and you get the idea. It’s worth considering whether the value of defending such assumptions under the fair argument standard is a prudent use of funds when each metropolitan planning organization is required to update its plan and conduct a subsequent full environmental impact report every four years.

Funding, Funding, Funding. SB 375 is a good planning law, but it remains an unfunded regional mandate from the state. The costs of increased planning, modeling, public outreach and more environmental analysis have been only partially covered with one-time funds. Regions cobble together funds from a variety of sources — including in some instances dues from member cities and counties — and it’s unclear where the long-term planning funds will come from.

But more importantly, funding for infrastructure is critical if California is going to meet its economic, housing and climate goals. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our transportation funding has been stagnant. It’s hard to build a new low-carbon system when so much of our current funding must be invested in maintaining what we have.

Our collective challenge as a state is to develop new sources of funding that can rebuild and restore our transportation system. CALCOG supported SB 1077 (DeSaulnier, Chapter 835, Statutes of 2014) to study the viability of a road usage charge in lieu of a gas tax, because this is the type of transformative structure that is needed. I have not, until now, mentioned cap and trade. That is because cap and trade is unlikely to produce enough revenues to facilitate transformative change in neighborhoods statewide. It’s a tool in the toolbox, but not a panacea.

Bottom-Up Regionalism. Finally, let me put my city hat back on. The regional process works only if city and county governments are fully engaged. Ultimately, a regional transportation project does not proceed unless the local governments want it. Many regional entities consider themselves “wholly owned subsidiaries” of their member local governments. Often, regional transportation agencies can provide good regionwide travel data that all member agencies can access and rely on. The agencies also provide an excellent forum for facilitation. But they do not work unless the local officials from the region are willing to collaborate — and work from the ground up. Together we are charged, by our residents and now SB 375, to plan the future of our region for our children and grandchildren’s families. To get that right, we must work together.


The future economic prosperity of our regions will be shaped by these regional strategies that expand transportation and housing options while protecting agricultural resources, open space and natural habitats. The plans start by funding long-overdue repairs to infrastructure and then look to the future by:

  • Investing in transit that connects workers to jobs;
  • Providing incentives for businesses to locate in our cities;
  • Offering strategies for making homes more affordable; and
  • Helping our communities plan to meet the needs of our younger generations just starting out and of baby boomers as they enter retirement.

The regional visions come into focus in our downtowns, main streets and neighborhoods where investments and policies are tailored to the character of our unique communities. The decisions we make today will drive the economic prosperity of our regions tomorrow. It’s a process that requires all of us to be engaged as we shape the future of our cities, regions and state.


  • California comprises 18 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs); four are multicounty organizations, and one (the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency) straddles the state line into Nevada.
  • A metropolitan planning organization is created under federal transportation law to provide local input into planning and funding transportation projects.
  • Federal law requires a metropolitan planning organization to develop a long-range (20-plus years) Regional Transportation Plan for investing transportation dollars and to program transportation funds in a way that is consistent with the long-range plan.
  • A Regional Transportation Plan is not a “plan” in the land-use sense. It’s a reasonable forecast of population growth, economic growth and future land development that is used to make informed long-range transportation investment decisions.
  • Each Regional Transportation Plan must be fiscally constrained, meaning that it is based on reasonable revenue assumptions that are likely to occur.
  • In air quality “non-attainment” areas, the Regional Transportation Plan must also undergo a conformity analysis by the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of air quality requirements.
  • SB 375 requires each metropolitan planning organization to develop a Regional Transportation Plan that achieves the greenhouse gas reduction targets set by the California Air Resources Board. These targets vary by region.


The Basics of SB 375

Understanding SB 375: Public Participation Requirements



  1. It Belongs To You. Most regional entities are joint powers authorities or transportation authorities set up to serve their members and are governed by locally elected officials. Make them work for you.
  2. Flexible & Versatile. Because regions are public agencies represented by local officials from communities throughout a county or region, they are uniquely positioned to build consensus across political boundaries.
  3. Economies of Scale. It often makes sense to do something once rather than have every agency develop a separate plan or program. In these instances, when consensus is high, regional governments can provide important economies of scale.
  4. The Sky is the Limit. When need and consensus converge, regional governments formed under joint powers agreements can take on almost any issue — ranging from habitat preservation to homelessness and from water quality to earthquake warning systems. For example, Western Riverside Council of Governments initiated a regionwide residential energy financing program (AB 811, Levine, Chapter 159, Statutes of 2008) that is attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in private financing and going statewide.
  5. Learn More About Your Council of Governments (COG). It’s worth your time to engage with your COG. Invite the executive director to lunch. Talk with your representative on the COG board. Spend 30 minutes on their website. Read an agenda. 
  6. And Finally. Reach out to your fellow officials and executives at other cities and counties and ask a simple question: Is there something that we should be collaborating on to serve our communities better? You just may find another opportunity to collaborate across local boundaries.

Photo credits: Iona Davies (Drutu)/; Konstantin Sutyagin/

This article appears in the March 2015 issue of Western City
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