Friday, April 29, 2011

One verb away from regionalism?

In the age of SB 375, much attention in California is being focused on the Regional Transportation Plans that (among other things) program the use of federal transportation dollars within the planning areas of California's 18 metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). Under SB 375, in California, these RTPs must now include a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) that, along with the RTP, demonstrably reduces the emission of greenhouse gases to meet defined targets by 2020 and 2035. Thus, to some extent at least, federal, state and regional transportation funds will, for the first time, be spent in the service of reducing regional climate impacts.

Less commented upon is the fact that the federal Code of Regulations has long contained standards for the preparation of RTPs that include some surprising provisions. Title 23, Section 450.316 outlines what the Federal Highway Administration expects of these RTPs, including analysis and consideration of:

* "Consistency of transportation planning with applicable federal, state and local energy conservation programs, goals, and objectives"

* "The likely effect of transportation policy decisions on land use and development..."

* "The effects of all transportation projects to be undertaken within the metropolitan planning area, without regard to the source of funding [including]...alternative investments in meeting transportation demand..."

* "The overall social, economic, energy and environmental effects of transportation decisions (including consideration of the effects and impacts of the plan on the human, natural and man-made environment...)"

So why do we continue to get sprawl-inducing freeway construction as the backbone of our regional transportation systems? Part of is, of course, is that the regulations merely require planners to "analyze" or "consider" these issues, which is far different than requiring that anything be done about them. So, could we simply strengthen this language to require that RTPs must identify and plan for the transportation solutions that actually fulfill these objectives, rather than merely considering them? Are we "one verb away" from substantive regionalism in the U.S.?

I suspect not. While strengthening this language would certainly help, and should be part of a reform agenda for federal transportation spending, it remains true that the regional transportation plans rely on local land use plans to determine what populations and land areas need to be served by transportation infrastructure. As long as those plans continue to program low-density, single-use development, the RTPs will follow with the only transportation system that can effectively serve that land use pattern -- freeways.

In the end, it is the fragmentation of land use authority, and the enormous profits to be made from greenfield land conversion, that are the primary drivers of sprawl. While stronger transportation planning regulations would help, it is not likely that they will overcome those forces on the own.

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