California’s SB 375 Would Tie Local Planning Decisions to Transportation Funding

Senator DarrellSteinberg

It is no secret that reductions in carbon emissions will require a holistic effort relying heavily on smart land use and transportation. A new bill in the California State Senate, SB 375, would compel local planning agencies to make planning choices that reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). In order to discuss the details of SB 375—which may become the next trend-setting piece of legislation to emerge from the California State Legislature—VerdeXchange News was pleased to speak with the bill’s author, State Senator Darrell Steinberg.


There have been reports that partisan politics are impacting the implementation of California’s climate change legislation. How committed is the state to an aggressive and proactive bi-partisan strategy to mitigate global warming?

First of all, you can never dismiss partisanship as a factor and a challenge in getting important things done, but when it comes to the implementation of AB 32, I think it’s less about partisanship, and more about a fundamental difference of opinion. I think everyone recognizes that in order to meet the requirements of this very aggressive law, we’re going to have to employ market-based mechanisms, we’re going to have to regulate, and we’re going to have to focus on mobile sources, stationary sources, and land use, which is the subject of SB 375. Since this is such groundbreaking legislation, there’s a lot of anxiety about the balance of those aspects. Many of us on the Democratic side feel that, while market-based mechanisms are important and should be part of the strategy, if we aren’t aggressive in looking at the regulatory side, we’re not going to meet the goals. The Republican side feels that if we regulate, we’re going to harm the economy. So it’s about finding the right balance while remaining committed to the goal, because as much as AB 32 is landmark legislation, it will mean very little if we don’t implement it in the spirit in which it was intended.

How important is the nomination and appointment of Mary Nichols as the chair of CARB to the implementation strategy for AB 32?

I am heartened by the governor’s selection of Mary Nichols. There have been a lot of questions about what went on, and why the prior chair was let go, but I think Mary Nichols is an excellent choice. She certainly has the confidence of the broader environmental community, she has a reputation as someone who can listen to all sides, and she’s a problem solver.

As you give this interview, there’s a press statement emanating from Florida that Governor Crist, with Governor Schwarzenegger in attendance, has signed into law greenhouse gas targets related to auto emissions and electricity generation. What is your reaction to state and federal actions on climate change—what does it suggest regarding the best legislative approach/ strategies to combat climate change?

Time magazine had it right a few weeks ago: there’s a whole lot more action at the state level than there is at the federal level, and if you allow me to be partisan for a moment, I think everyone is looking forward to a change of administration, because there is no vision or strategy at the federal level on par with the actions of certain states. I know that there’s a great willingness between Senator Boxer and the leaders of the House and the Senate, but to actually make change in this area, it will take an administration with vision and desire, and that just isn’t there. But we can’t hold our head in our hands; states must take the mantle to change the way we look at our climate. I’m confident that sometime in the next several years, when there’s a new administration in office, the federal government will follow.

Let’s turn to your bill, SB 375. What is the focus of SB 375, and what are your hopes and objectives for the bill?

You interviewed me before, when I was in the Assembly, about my strong belief that better land-use policy must be inextricably tied to environmental policy. I tried different ways to go about that during my years in the Assembly, which created a great debate over AB 680. It did not result in a change. I recovered from the bruises during a couple of years out of office, and now, I believe, I have found a better way that has a greater chance of success in the political arena. With the passage of AB 32, it’s very clear that addressing mobile sources and stationary sources is not enough and that land use is an essential element of achieving our climate change goals under AB 32.

Senate Bill 375 is the lead bill in this area. It is a very important yet fairly modest measure, because it requires the 18 metropolitan planning organizations across the state of California to show that their future planning scenarios will result in a reduction in carbon. The requirement will engage regions in a process similar to a process pioneered in my region of Sacramento, known as “the blueprint,” which essentially says that we need to plan as a region, not just as individual cities and counties. Air quality, traffic congestion, and carbon know no artificial boundaries. These issues must be tackled regionally.
The bill provides incentives for regions to consider the impact of land use on climate change. Under the provisions of the bill, the regions must engage in a process to develop scenarios that show a contribution to climate change, and if they do so but are unable to actually achieve the goal, the state is going to require the region to submit reports demonstrating the strategies they may need to meet the goals. If they don’t choose to engage in the process of developing better planning scenarios, then we’re going to tie transportation funding to that refusal. When you author a bill like this, there are always myths and facts, and some of the opposition is saying, “Regions are going to lose their transportation money if they can’t meet the goals.” Not true. We want the regions to engage in a process to set goals. We all need to work together to help every region in the state meet them.  The Sacramento blueprint effort, by the way, was not a partisan effort. This brought together the diverse counties of El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento County, Yolo, and Yuba counties, along with Democrats and Republicans. SB 375 seeks to do the same thing for other regions of the state.

At the Florida Climate Conference Summit, occurring at the time of this interview, Nick Bollman claimed that Florida could not reduce its overall emissions by implementing clean car regulations without also becoming more efficient with land use and transportation, citing your bill to make his argument. Is there a sense that you’ve got your hands on something politically potent and powerful in terms of complementing efforts to reduce emissions from stationary and mobile sources?

Absolutely. We’re not going to launch our national campaign until we pass the state law, but the fact of the matter is that this is cutting-edge. It’s cutting-edge because we finally have a context from which to address the issues of land use and regional planning. We haven’t had that context before.
We pled the advocates for this kind of approach, we pled good government, we pled reforming the finance and fiscal system, and there have been numerous reports and study groups that have recommended various changes to the way we fund state and local governments, and it’s all kind of dropped like a lead balloon. Now, everyone is embracing climate change, and there is a consensus that land use has to be part of the mix. As we change to cleaner fuel, we also need to build communities so that people are reducing the number of miles they’re traveling. I’m very heartened to hear that the word has already traveled across the country, because this is a cutting-edge measure, and the fact that it’s controversial is evidence that it’s a cutting-edge measure.

While the bill has passed out of the Assembly Transportation Committee, I’m sure you’re aware that there’s started to already be pushback by the League of Cities and some in the development community. How can any of what you’re hearing be incorporated into your bill?

I have, during the campaigns for my past bills, gone toe-to-toe with the League of Cities. But I want to say that the League, even though they have recommended a formal position of opposition, has actually been very constructive thus far. I’m confident that we’re going to be able to work it out. They want to ensure that cities and counties are not at risk of losing land-use authority, and not only is that not the intent of the bill, the bill does not sacrifice local land-use authority in any way.

I think the building community and the cities are both interested in what we plan to do in the bill to provide incentives for development within the growth scenario. For many years, the development community and local government have sought greater flexibility to gain approval for projects. This bill is another opportunity to reward the projects that are consistent with a preferred growth scenario. So we’re looking at that kind of regulatory relief without negating or sacrificing the principles of the people of this state. If a project is within what we call “the preferred growth scenario” and it does not raise health or safety issues, then it ought to be afforded much greater process flexibility than a project outside the preferred growth scenario.

What have you and the Sacramento Area Associations of Government learned about the challenges of enforcing the blueprint plan that can be applied to SB 375?

It’s first important to put the framework and the policy in place, but then you have to implement it. I’m willing to say, and SB 375 is consistent with this, “Let’s give the regions a chance to do it, let’s not get into the ‘stick’ approach.” And SACOG, since the development of blueprint, they’re making great strides. It takes time to bring jurisdictions along, but there is a common vision that did not exist prior to the blueprint, and change takes some time. It doesn’t go as fast as I want it to go, but it’s always better—and I think I’ve learned this through some hard struggles—when the region owns the change, as opposed to having the change imposed on them. Now, SB 375, again, does not impose any particular vision on any region. It says, “We want you to do what SACOG has done so successfully.” But in terms of the implementation, after the planning scenarios have been completed, I’m confident the regions will embrace this.

You’re the chair of the State Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, and there are a number of water bills pending in the Legislature: SB 178, 276, and 732. Talk a little bit about the water agenda as we draw this interview to a close.

These are the two years where water policy is going to take center stage. I would categorize the big issues in two ways: first of all, we must deal with the Delta. The issue of conveyance is as important, if not more important, in the short- to medium-term, than the issue of supply, because the Delta is in bad shape, the conveyance capacity is unreliable, and the ecosystem is not helping. We have to address that by making some big decisions. The PTIC published an excellent report where it laid out those options. The governor’s Delta Task Force, led by Phil Eisenberg, is going to report to the Legislature and the governor in the fall regarding the pros and cons of those various options. So conveyance in number one.

The second is issue is supply. There are a number of options, and we ought to be thinking about the potential of another bond that gives regions the option to consider a multitude of strategies for better groundwater management, regional water management, conservation, and above-ground storage. We ought to let the watersheds of California set their priorities, and not mandate the specific projects. Where the Democrats, the Republicans, the governor are together, is in recognizing the need to increase our water resources. I’m hopeful that this year, during this year’s session, we can make good strides.