Remember 2011? California was dealing with large budget deficits and the Oprah Show aired is final episode. In the world of regional planning, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs)--like the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG)--had just received the first Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction targets under SB 375 from the Air Resources Board (ARB) and were preparing the first regional transportation plans (RTPs) with a the newly required sustainable communities strategy (SCS).
It was a different world . . . with a lot of new acronyms.
Yesterday, the California Supreme Court took a trip back to 2011 and ruled that SANDAG's environmental review of its first long range RTP-SCS was appropriately "in step" with evolving scientific knowledge and the state regulatory structure.
The Court limited its review to a confounding element in this case: the extent to which the Governor's Executive Order relating to the GHG reduction goal for the year 2050 (80% lower than 2020 levels) should be treated as a measure of signficance under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). SANDAG's long range plan went through the year 2050 and fully discussed the likely emissions in 2050. But it did not apply the executive order as a specific measure of signficance.
Underlying the case is the regulatory oddity that federal law requires MPOs to update their long range transportation plans every four years while California law requires each update to include a full environmental review for the entire 20 to 35 year time frame of their plan. Put another way, SANDAG will have to go through 9 more RTP updates with full environmental review before the year 2050 is upon us. To our knowledge, California is the only state to apply this level of environmental review and mitigation to the federal long range planning process.
But back to the case at hand. In a 6 to 1 decision, the Court noted that CEQA requires "careful judgment" . . . . and found that SANDAG “sufficiently informed the public, based on the information available at the time, about the regional plan‘s greenhouse gas impacts.” SANDAG was not required to use the Executive Order as a measure of significance.
But the court was also careful to state that SANDAG's analysis is not a template. As more and better data become available, analysis of the impact of RTPs on GHG emissions will improve. The Court specifically noted that in its subsequent 2015 plan, (called San Diego Forward), SANDAG included several new factors in the GHG inventories that were not accounted for in 2011. The San Diego Forward plan also earned top honors as a recipient of the Transportation Planning Excellence Awards.
It's also worth noting that the SANDAG's 2015 plan was not challenged despite the participation of the same parties in the comment process.
Specifically, the Court advised: "A regional planning agency like SANDAG, charged with assisting the implementation of the state‘s climate goals, must straightforwardly address in the relevant environmental review documents whether its regional transportation plan as a whole is in accord with those goals. Its capacity to do so will likely improve over time" (emphasis added).
One take-away for regional agencies--MPO, RTPA & COG alike--is to maintain their leadership in using the RTP process to build a vision where every community within a region becomes more prosperous, equitable, and environmentally sustainable. Plans developed by MPOs throughout the state seek to best apply limited transportation resources to achieve these outcomes.
But perhaps the real standard was set by Oprah: "Create the highest, grandest vision possible ... because you become what you believe."