Article Features Darrell Steinberg

SB 375 Explained

Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is state senator for California’s 6th District, which includes the City of Sacramento and parts of Elk Grove and Citrus Heights. Previously, he served as a member of the state Assembly and the Sacramento City Council.

I want to thank the League of California Cities for this opportunity to write about my bill, SB 375, and what I think is the biggest environmental issue of our time: the relationship between how California grows and our efforts to combat global warming.

A pundit once said that the three biggest issues in California are growth, growth and growth. California’s constant growth affects nearly everything around us, from our schools to our water supply to our roads. According to projections, this won’t change anytime soon. California is expected to grow by another 20 million people by 2050.

The big question is this: How can California continue to grow and at the same time maintain the quality of life to which we are accustomed?

While that question is usually at the heart of California’s thorniest policy debates, this year there’s a new wrinkle to the conversation because of landmark environmental legislation passed in 2006. AB 32 says that the state must reduce greenhouse gases by 25 percent by 2020.

To reach the goals of AB 32, California governments (both state and local) must find ways big and small to reduce their carbon footprints. Many, of course, are already doing this, and the California Air Resources Board (ARB) is also developing a program to reduce carbon emissions from a variety of sources.

Cars and light trucks are the single greatest source of carbon emissions — generating about 40 percent. But AB 32 does not specifically speak to land use or transportation. This is where my bill, SB 375, comes in.

Everybody talks about the high-profile solutions to global warming: hybrid cars, solar panels and wind-generated energy. Of course, these solutions are important and necessary. But by far, the hardest decisions we will have to make are about land use and transportation.

Reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled

The question before us is: How do we maintain local land use authority while at the same time creating incentives for cities and developers to build housing closer to job and retail centers? By moving housing closer to urban cores, we can reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in California.

Why is this important? In the past 16 years, California VMT has increased more than 30 percent, growing faster than even our rapid population growth. The implications of this increase in VMT are dire; 50 percent of air pollution comes from highway vehicles, and California consumes more than 1 million barrels of oil per day. One can only imagine what these figures will be when the state grows to 60 million people in 2050.

In human terms, the implications of doing nothing are just as dire — more Californians spending more time in traffic and less time with their families. The longer driving times will poison our air and increase health problems for the most vulnerable among us. And California farmland, a main economic driver for our state, will disappear as we continue to locate housing farther away from cities and job centers.

By signing AB 32 in 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger showed that he’s serious about the threat automobile emissions pose to California. California’s cities are also showing that they’re ready to take on this challenge, taking steps that include switching city auto and bus fleets from dirty diesel and gasoline to cleaner burning fuels, and passing green building ordinances. California cities recognize that they must be at the front lines in our continued battle against global warming.

Cities should also be at the forefront of any effort to reduce VMT, and they can do this best by working collaboratively with other cities to come up with regional solutions. This is already happening successfully through councils of governments, with the idea that traffic or bad air doesn’t begin or end at a city or county border. It’s a regional problem.

Take the example of a resident of City A who works in City B. This very typical individual deserves more than the independent efforts of two cities to reduce emissions in his or her community. Such a resident would surely benefit from a multijurisdictional, regional transportation plan in which land use, transporta tion funding and reductions in green house gases are linked, precisely as they are in the real world.

California’s best regional transportation models not only prove that growth can be accommodated, but that the foot print can be more compact and necessary expenditures for transportation can be tailored to a region’s housing needs. A key part of SB 375 is that these pioneering regional blueprints should be emulated and adopted into a cohesive state strategy .

Crafting the Bill

I have wrestled with how to craft a bill that relies entirely on incentives to strengthen the existing regional transportation planning model while respecting local governments’ land use permitting authority. The bill requires a commitment to housing all of our future residents in such a way that homes are located closer to jobs, thus ensuring that we can meet our climate-related objectives.

I don’t pretend that this is easy, but I believe it is essential. The major incentives in the bill come from reforms to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that expedite review of projects located within what the bill calls a “sustainable communities strategy.” This is basically a beefed-up version of the existing regional transportation plan with the addition of a regional emissions target, criteria for prioritizing development away from agricultural and resource lands, and adding several CEQA incentives.

The bill calls on ARB to establish greenhouse gas reduction targets (on the same timeline as AB 32) for every region of the state. The regions would adapt their housing and transportation plans accordingly to take advantage of the CEQA reforms the bill offers. If a region is unable to achieve the ARB target, it would submit a “supplement” that contains the steps it would need to achieve the target. Rural counties are exempt from the bill.

It is important to note that the bill does not prohibit development on agriculture lands or other resource lands. In fact, the most successful regional blueprints plan for about half of the new growth in their respective regions on “greenfields” and not as infill projects.

Proposed Changes to CEQA Provide Incentives

Rather than mandating specific land use or transportation planning results, I have insisted that the bill proceed with the use of incentives. For years, local governments and developers have asked for changes to CEQA to spur development in urban centers, and that is what the bill contains.

The bill proposes four CEQA changes for primarily residential projects:

  1. Projects that can mitigate their impacts may use a new “sustainable communities environmental assessment” that would be reviewed under the substantial evidence standard and would not be subject to legal challenges in the same way as mitigated negative declarations;
  2. Projects that need an EIR because the impacts cannot be fully mitigated are only required to review the “project-specific” impacts;
  3. Projects can be relieved from the imposition of additional traffic mitigations under CEQA if they comply with traffic mitigation policies adopted in advance by the local jurisdiction; and
  4. Projects that are consistent with the sustainable communities strategy will not be required to do a separate environmental analysis of the greenhouse gas impacts of traffic associated with the project.

Again, these CEQA incentives are designed specifically to accommodate developments that will reduce the miles that Californians drive every day. If only the four major metropolitan areas in California adopted plans that reduced VMT by 10 percent, 250 tons of pollution would be eradicated from our air — the equivalent of eliminating all air pollution from electric utilities, petroleum refining, oil and gas production and all waste disposal combined.

Working with the League and other key stakeholders, my objective is to craft legislation that is practical, efficient, cost effective and, most importantly, will help California meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals contained in AB 32, the Governor’s Climate Change Action Plan and elsewhere. I have amended the bill to alleviate many concerns already, and I will continue to be responsive to all responsible parties. Climate change is the environmental issue of this and the next generation, and it is incumbent on all of us to get it right.

Fundamentally, growth is a positive thing for California. We must ensure that the state grows in a sustainable way to maintain our quality of life for the generations to come.

This article appears in the February 2008 issue of Western City
Did you like what you read here? Subscribe to Western City