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SANDAG Regional Transportation Plan Derailed, What's Next?

December 6, 2012 4:57 p.m.


Jack Shu, is a member of the board of directors, Cleveland National Forest Foundation

Erin Chalmers, Attorney from Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, they represented the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and the Sierra Club

Related Story: SANDAG Regional Transportation Plan Derailed, What's Next?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Earlier this week, a San Diego superior court judge ruled against a 40-year plan devised by San Diego County officials on the region's transportation needs. The plan outlined $200 billion in projects from the building of new freeway lanes to new public transportation and bicycle projects. This plan was a point of pride by officials from the San Diego County association of governments or SANDAG. Local leaders also touted the fact that this was the first long-range transportation plan from any California county since the state set regional targets for reducing greenhouse gases. So what went wrong? I'd like to introduce my guests, Jack Shu is a member of the Board of Directors of Cleveland national forest foundation. Welcome to the program.

SHU: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Erin Chalmers is attorney from Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger. They represented the forest organization and the Sierra club. SANDAG sent us a statement, "We stand behind behind the plan and its environmental impact report." Jack, you first, the Cleveland national forest foundation was one of the leading organizations that challenged this plan. The crux of this ruling is that the judge says this plan fails to do what it was specifically intended to do, and that is, reduce emissions. How did SANDAG get it wrong in your opinion?

SHU: In two days. One is that they simply did not meet CEQA, are a law to protect our citizens and communities. And they didn't meet it in a number of areas. The one that the judge ruled on was how it did not meet governor Schwarzenegger's executive order dealing with greenhouse gases reducing it into 2050. SANDAG propose to project their gas emissions into 2050 for the region, and they simply did not do that.

CAVANAUGH: Is there something ambiguous about these emission requirements that is subject to interpretation? I'm trying to nail down Howe it is that SANDAG tried to meet he's requirements and yet the judge found that they didn't.

CHALMERS: Sure. I think the issue really here is that SANDAG did meet, although it barely met some short-term greenhouse gas reduction requirements of state law. However it really failed to grapple with the fact that long-term needs to keep reducing emissions far beyond these short-term goals. And as jack mentioned, there's an executive order that states that it's the policy of the State of California to reduce greenhouse embassy emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050. We need to substantially reduce the greenhouse gas emissions. Even though SANDAG's plan goes to the year 2050, they ignored this long-term need to reduce emissions. And that's what the judge said, for a long-term plan like this, you need to look at the long-term trend of greenhouse gas emissions. So SANDAG looked at some short-term greenhouse gas reductions that it admits were mostly caused by the poor economy, not by its plan, but then ignored the fact that its plans allows emissions to significantly rise over time.

CAVANAUGH: But they had an environmental impact report. They submitted this plan based on the same criteria that you have and that the state has issued. Again, where is the disconnect? Where is the idea that the plan SANDAG submitted they thought would meet the requirement, and the judge says it hasn't?

CHALMERS: Well, to be clear, the judge said that the environmental impact report that SANDAG certified does not meet the requirements of law. And this environmental impact report is required to do two things in particular that SANDAG didn't do. It's required to inform the public and decision-makers about the full impact of its project over the entire life of the project. That's where it failed here by only looking at the short-term greenhouse gas reduction goals, as opposed to grappling with the long-term goals. And secondly, SANDAG was required to take a leadership role and really mitigate the impact of its project by encouraging or spending money on measures that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the long-run. And as the judge found Tdidn't do enough in that regard. It basically kicked the can down the road and said, well, we'll do more later. So it wasn't the plan itself that didn't meet the short-term greenhouse gas reductions, but it was in fact the environmental impact report that the judge invalidated.

CAVANAUGH: I understand now. Okay. Jack, you have a chart that shows the total emissions picture going out for a span of 40 years to 2050. It includes SANDAG's projected emissions under the regional transportation plan, and it seems to jive with the plan up until about 2020?

SHU: 2020, it barely meets the goal. But then from there, their line keeps on going up. Of and the goals go down.

CAVANAUGH: Dramatically.

SHU: Yeah, it doesn't make a rocket scientist. In fact it probably wouldn't take a person with an elementary school education to figure out this doesn't work, that we're not in compliance or even trying. And SANDAG just ignored this issue, that their projections go up. This is their chart. We didn't make this up. So I think that's really something that the public needs to know. And I should also add, this isn't something new for SANDAG. Four years ago, they put out an RTP, or regional transportation plan, that was challenged. They promised at that time they would fix it, that they would address this issue now. They didn't. Over the period of reviewing their draft EIR, numerous documents pointing out all the issues that needed to be addressed if they wanted an EIR. Including the attorney general's office. This is something that SANDAG has been informed about, warned about. It's like going down the wrong road. You get signs saying you're going down the wrong road, you get pulled over by the CHP, in this case the attorney general, are here's a warning. And SANDAG just simply continued to do that, and apparently still wants to.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Erin, considering what Jack said, SANDAG says in response that this very plan was approved by the California air resources board, the California Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation. How did it get approved by all of these agencies if indeed it doesn't meet the standards that are required?

CHALMERS: Well, each of those agencies has only a particular limited role in approving this particular plan. The California air resources board only needed to look at whether or not this plan would meet greenhouse gas reduction targets for the years 2020 and 2035. And as jack has mentioned, and I've mentioned, the plan does meet the greenhouse gas reduction target for 2020. And just barely, it also meets the target for 2035. But again, this is largely due to the poor economy, which means people aren't driving as much, and a low carbon fuel standard, which even without SANDAG's plan is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, the California environment ram quality act requires more than that. It requires that agencies look over the plan over the full life of the plan. And here SANDAG chose to adopt a plan to goes all the way out to 2050, not just to 2035. So we think it's crucial that SANDAG get it right this time. It's going to be making transportation decisions that will affect the region for decades to come. And so we think it's good that they look all the way out to 2050. But they really need to look at the long-term trend of the emission, and the other impacts from their project.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Jack, some environmental groups and callers into this program criticized the RTP when it was being developed because they claimed it was frontloaded with highway projects and backloaded with public transportation plans. Is what we're seeing on this chart where the emissions go up as the targets go down because the highway plans come first?

SHU: Sure. It would help greatly if we started implementing -- in fact SANDAG's own plan and accelerate in in terms of transportation systems. That would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. But even aside from greenhouse emissions, I had mentioned that their plan failed in several areas. One is against CEQA. And it also failed the people. People are looking for transit. We want more transit. This win that we had early this week is a win for workers and students, people for whatever reason who rely on public transit. They need to spend less time getting from one part of the city to another to get to work. It's a win of businessmen and retailers that want more vibrant economies within their urban areas. Transit would help do that. Of it's a win for parents and grandparents who want fewer cases of asthma for their kids and less cancer. It's a win for a lot of people.

CAVANAUGH: And yet when we had representatives who were compiling this plan, putting this plan together, holding public hearing, doing their research, they came out with some statistics that said that people were not using public transportation in San Diego County. They were not using it and they weren't necessarily inclined to --

SHU: That's an excellent point. And the reason why it doesn't work is because SANDAG has not implemented a system that will work. We need a transportation network in which people can get from one place to another faster. The approach has been piecemeal, let's fix this line and that line. Other cities have been very successful in getting more people to use transit. If we take Portland, Oregon, for example 40% -- their goal was to get 40% of people in their urban core to use walking and biking. And they've done that by not building anymore freeways. They haven't done so for 25 years! They built a nice light-rail system. Their economy is vibrant, they have a much healthier environment to live in, and a much higher quality of life.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Erin, before this ruling came down this week, we were surprised already that the state attorney general got involved in this case. Can you put that into some context for us? How significant is it that the AG's office got involved?

CHALMERS: Well, we think it's very kith. And we're really gratified that they agreed with the Sierra club and Cleveland national forest foundation and the, petitions that this is such an important case. As you mentioned, this is the first regional transportation plan to come out since the state adopted now greenhouse gas reduction goals. So I think it's very important. It really showed SANDAG and the other regional transportation agencies in the state that the state is watching this process closely and believes that agencies should take their leadership role seriously in addressing not just reduction of greenhouse gas emissions but also the health impact from other emissions. Whenever we reduce the number of vehicles on the road, that doesn't just reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it also reduces other pollutants. And one of the attorney general's issue, and one of Cleveland national forest foundation's and the Sierra club's issues was that San Diego has some of the poorest air quality in the nation. And there are real benefits to be had here by promoting more transit development.

CAVANAUGH: There's a caller on the line. Allen Hoffman is calling from mission group in San Diego. Allen, welcome to the program.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you very much. I was calling because I have -- something which may or may not help us understand what some of the problems are with SANDAG. And I'll say this as someone who's worked very hard trying to improve the quality of our transit planning of the region. But part of the reason, one of the largest reasons why SANDAG has not been capable of developing a plan that changes the emissions reduction is actually a technical one, and relatively easy to fix, but SANDAG has been very resistant to this issue. And it's the level of their models that they use to project whether or not people will ride a transit line or drive their cars. Their model essentially is structured in a way, no matter how fantastic a transit system you put out there, it won't show even lower middle income people riding it. And it's not because they won't. It's because they're not measuring the things or effectively measuring those things that we know from experience all across the United States, and even in San Diego, that give a middle income person opportunities to use transit. So SANDAG will try to come up with transit solutions, but every time it runs it through its model, the numbers just don't come out.

CAVANAUGH: Allen, thank you very much. Do you go with that, Jack?

SHU: Well, that's part of the problem. The big problem is they just don't want to do it. Everybody in San Diego pays a half cent sales tax to TransNet. And that money is our money. We can direct that money. And SANDAG has the ability to realicate that money and put transit first. And they have refused to do so or even consider it as an alternative. And I think that's the real travesty. We have money that is available to us to build an efficient, workable transportation system, and we have -- we don't have the leadership to change the direction that we're going. They continue to want to continue the same way and do the same thing. That's why SANDAG can print out a lot of pretty paper showing that they're going to build a transportation system but they won't get to it for another 20, 30 years. My grand kids, my kids now are suffering from a chance of getting cancer and asthma. They need the relief in the next 10 years, and we can do it if they're willing to take that kind of leadership.

CAVANAUGH: One last question to you, from the plan that's been submitted, is there a way that you can see that SANDAG can restructure it in some way that will be acceptable or do they have to go back to the drawing board?

SHU: I think they need to do a lot. And the first thing is they have to determine whether or not they want to change. And until they do that, it's pretty difficult to try to fix things. They're going to continue to offer up moving deck chairs on a ship that's going the wrong direction.

CAVANAUGH: The SANDAG Board of Directors is going to meet in closed session tomorrow to discuss judge Taylor's ruling on the regional transmission plan. We will be following this story and whatever SANDAG says in response in their next move in this story.