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SANDAG to meet with petitioners in transportation plan lawsuit

The future of the $214 billion transportation planning blueprint for the San Diego region through 2050 remains unknown, as the board of directors for the San Diego Association of Governments has agreed to begin meeting with lawyers representing petitioners who have, for now, put the brakes on the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan.

The long-range transportation plan was struck down in court with the Dec. 3 ruling of San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor, who sided with petitioners — including the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity — by stating that in preparing the plan’s Environmental Impact Report, SANDAG inadequately addressed greenhouse gas emissions. The ruling invalidated the document on the basis of non-conformance with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

Following its regularly scheduled meeting, the SANDAG board of directors on Friday met in closed session to discuss its options. That afternoon, SANDAG released a statement on the results of that meeting.

“It has always been SANDAG’s intention to comply with greenhouse gas emission laws and regulations as directed by state agencies,” the statement read. “In developing the 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, SANDAG worked very hard — and in good faith — to comply with the specific emission reduction targets established by the California Air Resources Board (CARB). CARB and the state Department of Transportation all agreed that the plan met those targets and complied with applicable laws.”

The suit against SANDAG was initially filed in late November 2011 by the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity in San Diego Superior Court. By January 2012, the state of California joined in the lawsuit when the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris filed its motion to intervene. The Sierra Club had joined the lawsuit just days earlier.

After the initial filing, Jack Shu, president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, said SANDAG implemented a transportation plan meant more for the 1950s than 2011, criticizing its gradual rollout of transit-oriented projects.

Among the complaints were charges that SANDAG ignored alternatives, such as the foundation's 50-10 Plan, which proposes pushing forward the implementation of transit projects so as to create in 10 years what was planned for in the next 50.

While the 2050 RTP, in total, dedicated more money to transit than other types of transportation, such as highways, the transit rollout wasn’t aggressive enough to meet state greenhouse gas goals, Shu said.

As a proportion of total expenditures in the plan, mass transit was planned to receive 36 percent of the funds in the first 10 years, 44 percent in the next 10 years, 44 percent from 2031 to 2040 and 57 percent in the plan’s final decade. Capital improvement costs for mass transit projects account for more than $43 billion of the plan’s total revenue-constrained cost of $214 billion, compared with $33.5 billion going to highway capital improvement expenditures.

The central issue within the judge’s ruling was the first of five orders set by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2005 Executive Order S-3-05, which set targets for the state’s greenhouse gas emissions through 2050, 15 years beyond the last target date within SB-375, the 2008 law that implemented portions of AB-32, passed in 2006 and known as the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.

The 2005 executive order established targets for California of reductions in GHG emissions to 2000 levels by 2010, reductions in emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and reductions in emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

While not contradictory to one another, the executive order and SB-375 were also not necessarily in sync with one another, with one laying the groundwork for planning as far out as 2050 and the other much earlier.

By SB-375 standards, the SANDAG plan follows the rules. It overachieves in its early years by curbing greenhouse gas emissions by twice as much as required by 2020 — the California Air Resources Board required SANDAG to draw a plan that cuts emissions, from a 2005 baseline level, 7 percent by 2020, while the 2050 RTP calls for a 14 percent reduction by then.

CARB’s requirement for 2035 was for SANDAG’s plan to curb emissions by a total of 13 percent, a number SANDAG also complies with in the 2050 RTP, but just barely.

That’s as far into the future as SB-375 goes. It set no targets or requirements for 2050. SANDAG was not required to make a plan looking as far into the future as 2050. Taylor stated in his ruling that, “having chosen to develop a plan for 15 years beyond that which was required under law, SANDAG was obligated to discuss impacts beyond the 2020 horizon.”

In the weeks leading up to the initial filing of the lawsuit, under already visible criticism from the eventual filers, SANDAG began defending its 2050 projections as loose projections based on 2011 technology, suggesting that as the transportation plans are updated every four years, as required, the declines in progress won’t actually wind up being the case.

SANDAG’s 2050 projection stands at just a 9 or 10 percent reduction from the 2005 greenhouse gas levels. In a November 2011 interview, SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos said he remained “bullish” on the idea that the eventual 2050 reductions are likely to be much larger as time passes and technological innovation changes things.

Jerome Stocks, SANDAG’s chairman, said at the time that the criticisms of backsliding were fueled by SANDAG’s overachievement of goals for 2020. To this day, SANDAG contends it hasn’t received due credit from plan opponents for going twice as far as needed with the 2020 goal.

"It's frustrating to get criticized as 'backsliding’ when, had we simply achieved 7 percent in 2020 and 13 percent in 2035, everybody would be cheering, 'They did it!'," Stocks said.

The Friday statement from SANDAG added that the board of directors authorized its attorneys to meet with the petitioners for settlement discussions, but that it also directed its legal team to seek appeal of Taylor’s decision “if settlement discussions prove to not be fruitful. “

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San Diego Association of Governments Executive(s):

Gary Gallegos

  • Executive Director

Tom Brown

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