Wednesday, May 25, 2011

New report on SB 375

I'm pleased to announce that we've released a new report on how California's regions can create more sustainable communities through Senate Bill 375, California's new law that aligns regional land use and transportation planning toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  The report, Leveraging a New Law: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions under Senate Bill 375, describes the key factors that will determine whether SB 375 ultimately results in more efficiently planned communities that enable Californians to drive less or merely in another well-meaning but toothless planning exercise.

As Ezra Rapport, the Executive Director of ABAG, said in a talk at the Commonwealth Club earlier today, successful regional planning in a home-rule state like California is ultimately an act of political will--it's not something that can be legislated.  SB 375 creates several opportunities for metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to foster alternatives to driving and encourage development in vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods that are well-served by transit.  It's ultimately up to MPOs--and the local elected officials that make up their boards--to take advantage of these opportunities, but given the long-term, abstract nature of regional planning it can be hard to understand whether or not they're doing this.  In order to clarify the issues surrounding SB 375, we interviewed over 50 planners from across Calfiornia and conducted an in-depth financial analysis of current regional plans.  Our report offers recommendations to MPOs and the state on how to leverage SB 375 to reduce sprawl that smart growth advocates can use to evaluate the first round of regional growth and transportation plans subject to SB 375 that MPOs will be releasing over the next several years.

The biggest carrot that SB 375 offers to local governments in exchange for implementing regional land use plans is the promise that MPOs will allocate more transportation funding toward the areas that these plans target for growth.  One of our key findings is that MPOs only control 10 percent of statewide transportation funding, and 15 percent of funding for capital projects.  This share is unlikely to be sufficient to fund a large-scale shift in growth patterns, especially since MPOs consider much of their funding committed, either to projects funded by local sales taxes or to "fair-share" distributions among local governments.  In order for SB 375 to work, MPOs must create regional plans that outline clear goals for regional growth, and pass supplementary policies that prioritize funding to projects that meet these goals. 

In a previous post, I evaluated SANDAG's draft regional plan against the recommendations contained in our report.  I'll be keeping an eye on regional plans as they come out--check back for updates.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Five points on California's first draft RTP/SCS

As my colleague Eliot Rose notes in our previous post, the first draft Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) and Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) under SB 375 has been released by SANDAG, the San Diego-area metropolitan planning organization (MPO). SB 375 is California’s first effort to link regional transportation planning with land use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so many eyes are upon SANDAG’s new draft document as an important trendsetter for implementation of this landmark law.

A number of things leapt out at me on my first read of the document, mostly centering around a key table (Table 2.2 on pages 2-6 and 2-7) comparing performance measure outcomes for the RTP/SCS in 2050, a “no-plan” alternative for 2050, and the present day (defined as 2008 for modeling purposes). SANDAG included many performance measures in this table, but I focused mainly on the core issues of SB 375 and GHG reduction – namely, the CO2 levels per capita, VMT and mode shares. Five points of note:

1. VMT per capita (line 14) is essentially the same in the current-day and RTP/SCS 2050 scenarios, and are only about 5% higher in the no-plan 2050 scenario. This means that plan implementation would do essentially nothing over the next 40 years to reduce per capita driving in the region from today’s levels, and is only marginally better than doing no plan at all.

2. A clear implication of point (1) is that the RTP/SCS is not relying on VMT reductions to meet its regional GHG reduction targets under SB 375 for 2020 and 2035. It does indeed meet those targets, according to Table 3.1 on page 3-3. In fact, according to line 20 in Table 2.2, CO2 emissions per capita drop from 28.1 lbs/day today to 18.9 lbs/day in the RTP/SCS 2050 scenario. Strikingly, however, these emissions also drop to 19.9 in the 2050 no-plan scenario. That is a 29.2% drop in CO2 emissions by 2050 without the RTP/SCS, which is faster than the extrapolated pace of SB 375’s regional targets. (The RTP/SCS would result in a 32.7% decline). This suggests that SANDAG believes it would meet the SB 375 targets without even implementing the RTP/SCS.

3. One possible explanation for how the region will achieve these reductions without reducing VMT is that SANDAG is planning for substantial improvements in avoiding congestion and increasing vehicle speeds. Indeed, these are a major thrust of the RTP/SCS. However, as noted in point (2), most of the CO2 reductions are occurring even in the no-plan alternative, which has much greater congestion than the RTP/SCS scenario (see line 10 of Table 2.2 on page 2-6). It is not immediately apparent within the document how these outcomes square with one another.

4. A background memorandum dated May 14, 2010, and presented in Technical Appendix 9, partially explains how SANDAG developed its SCS/RTP scenario. As part of that process, SANDAG analyzed CO2 emissions for its current RTP, not only for today but for the years 2020 and 2035. That analysis showed that the current RTP will reduce CO2 emissions by 8.8% by 2020 but by only 5.4% by 2035. The memo explains:
Per capita emissions in 2020 are lower than the 2005 base case due to balanced transportation capital investments and balanced growth in jobs and housing throughout the region. However, per capita emissions increase from 2020 to 2035 due in part to a disparity in employment growth and housing growth that begins to emerge after 2020 as employment clusters in the South Bay and North County Inland areas grow more rapidly than housing.
This result shapes much of what appears in the draft RTP/SCS, including the fact that the RTP/SCS scenario achieves 14% reduction of CO2 per capita by 2020, but only 13% by 2035, and just 9% by 2050. This seems to be related to the issues in point (1) and (3) above, as well as the points in Eliot’s previous post. If the RTP/SCS were achieving CO2 reductions through fundamental improvements in the transportation system and regional land use, one would expect these improvements to accumulate over time. But congestion reduction and improved vehicle speed tend to be short-term improvements, which will diminish in effectiveness over time.

5. And that leads to the final point. As many have noted, SB 375 has no strong mechanism for re-shaping regional growth patterns. RTPs plan transportation systems that meet the needs of a given regional land use pattern – a pattern that is determined by disparate local municipalities acting independently of one another. This RTP is no different, even though it includes an SCS and must meet a CO2 reduction target. If local municipalities in the San Diego region continue to make land use decisions that perpetuate sprawl and automobile dependency, there is ultimately little that the RTPs or SCSs will be able to do to make sustained progress against climate change.

Monday, May 2, 2011

How sustainable is SANDAG's SCS?

I’ve been spending the last month wrapping up a report on the critical steps that metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) can take in order to implement Senate Bill 375. The report examines how MPOs can leverage the opportunities presented by SB 375 to effectively create more livable communities, reduce sprawl, provide better alternatives to driving, and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and we’ll be posting it on our website soon. Meanwhile, MPOs continue to work on their next regional transportation plans (RTPs), which are required to include a land use plan, the sustainable communities strategy (SCS), that works alongside the transportation improvements in the RTP to reduce GHG emissions by concentrating new housing in areas where people drive less. SANDAG, the MPO for the San Diego metro area, just released their draft RTP, which is the first plan subject to the requirements of SB 375. There’s a lot in SANDAG’s RTP to applaud, including its focus on transit and the fact that it meets ARB’s GHG reduction targets. However, in the process of creating this report we found that complying with SB 375 is a different thing than actually using the opportunities that the bill presents to produce substantive changes in the way our communities look and the way that we get around, and SANDAG’s RTP illustrates this gap. I took a look at the RTP to see how it performs with respect to two of the key recommendations in our report.

The draft RTP is open for public comment through mid-June if you wish to weigh in.

Recommendation #1: MPOs should include clear goals for future land use changes in their SCS.

According to Appendix D, page 33 of SANDAG’s RTP: “The 2050 Regional Growth Forecast is based primarily on local land use plans, many of which have been updated in the past four years, and also includes draft plan updates and more robust redevelopment assumptions within existing plans.” In effect, this is how MPOs have created local land use scenarios for the past several decades, and it’s the approach that gave us the sprawling metro areas that we have today. Local plans don’t adequately consider regional impacts such as congestion or air quality, and are often based more on economic aspirations—more big-box retail that brings big tax revenues and costs less to serve, less housing—than on regional realities. The California Transportation Commission allows that MPOs can deviate from local planning assumptions local plans in order to account for regional economic trends, prior regional “blueprint” land use plans, or for the gap in the time horizon between local plans, which cover 15 to 20 years, and the RTP/SCS, which in SANDAG’s case goes out to 2050.

SANDAG’s draft SCS does not seem to take advantage of many of these opportunities. Though the plan calls for areas that are well-served by current and planned transit, such as San Diego and Chula Vista, take on fair shares of the region’s housing growth between now and 2050—44 and 11 percent respectively—unincorporated areas of San Diego county, which are generally far from transit and low-density, still take on 10 percent of the region’s housing, even during the period between 2035 and 2050, when SANDAG is free to make more assumptions because this period is outside the horizon of the county’s updated general plan. And there are plenty of reasons, from shifting demographics to rising gas prices, to assume that this housing will not be as desirable in the future. Yet SANDAG’s SCS only houses 53 percent of the region’s growth in Smart Growth Opportunity Areas identified in its blueprint plan, while the remaining half goes to the suburbs, much of it in unincorporated areas.

Source: SANDAG, 2050 Draft RTP, page 3-3

According to SANDAG’s projections, the GHG reductions in its RTP start out substantial and then taper off. SANDAG’ explains that this is because “greenhouse gas emission reductions from compact land use, [sic] and alternative transportation modes will be outpaced by regional growth." This doesn’t have to be the case. If the SCS and RTP pursue a land-use strategy that houses most new residents in areas that have progressively better transit service and higher density and mix of uses, GHG reductions should compound over time. This is one of the assumptions upon which ARB’s GHG reduction targets, which get more stringent over time, were created, and an MPO can meet this assumption by creating an SCS that proactively addresses regional land use patterns. SANDAG doesn’t estimate the relative effectiveness of the GHG reduction measures in its RTP, but based on the numbers my guess is that the large initial reductions are due to congestion relief from the new freeway lanes, some of which are managed, that SANDAG is building over the short term, and then they taper off as new cars fill that capacity. If that’s the case, this is not the type of planning that’s going to create more sustainable communities over the long term—it’s greenwashing the status quo.

Recommendation #2: MPOs should review “committed” projects and fast-track those that reduce emissions.

The RTP process allows for a fair amount of flexibility: although an RTP includes a fixed list of projects, it often doesn’t specify the order in which projects will be completed. Same goes for transportation sales taxes such as the San Diego area’s TransNet, which is administered by SANDAG. This means that MPOs have an opportunity to reduce GHG emissions by prioritizing projects that support smart growth, while delaying others until they are amended or omitted in a subsequent version of the RTP or until a sales tax measure allows for amendments. However, many MPOs limit their own flexibility by considering a large number of projects, as well as many funding sources to be “committed,” and not subject to discretionary decisions during the RTP process. 

SANDAG points out that this RTP is much more focused on transit than the previous one, and indeed transit accounts for about 45 percent of the overall plan expenditures, compared to 32 percent for roads and highways. However, this does not present a clear picture of SANDAG’s priorities, because it accounts for dollars spent by local governments and Caltrans, and because many funding sources, particularly those that go toward transit operations, can only be used for one purpose, so they’re not really discretionary. SANDAG’s analysis of different investment scenarios for its RTP (see page 13 of Appendix D) included roughly $43 billion worth of transit and highway projects—the type of projects that SANDAG funds—and $32 million of those are included in TransNet or otherwise committed. Of those committed projects, 63 percent go to highways and 37 percent go to transit. Granted, SANDAG does not have the ability to remove sales tax projects from its expenditure plan, and SB 375 specifically exempts sales tax projects from consideration during the SCS process. However, $10 billion worth of SANDAG’s committed projects are not tax-funded, and even those that are draw in money from other discretionary sources that SANDAG allocates. There is no reason that the agency can’t elect to reconsider committed projects in light of SB 375, particularly those in its Early Action Program, which are the first in line for funding. MTC, the MPO for the Bay Area, just passed a policy narrowing its definition of committed projects and funds, which potentially frees up more money to apply toward meeting its GHG reduction targets. This type of policy can be an important step in taking early and aggressive action to reduce GHGs.