SB 375 Is Only The Beginning

 

Senate Bill 375 – commonly referred to in the popular press as the “climate change smart growth bill” – is going to become a law. The newspapers have been calling the legislation “precedent setting,” but it’s got nary a new idea in it. If you peel back the layers, you’ve got what old-timers like me call a “growth management law” – one that ties transportation funding to growth patterns.

The ideas in SB 375 have been kicking around Sacramento for 20 years. But until the passage of AB 32, which is essentially an air pollution law that contains a ferocious mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there was no issue in Sacramento overpowering enough to break the decades-old logjam involving enviros, builders, and local governments.

The question now whether SB 375 – combined with all the other darned laws we already have in place here in California – will actually influence the state’s growth patterns.

SB 375 says that each region in California has to create a preferred growth scenario that will minimize greenhouse gas emissions, and then ties state transportation funds to projects that conform to that preferred growth scenario. This is not exactly a revolutionary idea. In fact, it’s the basic idea contained in the “original” smart growth policy, the one put into place by Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening in 1997.

In California, the idea’s pedigree goes back much farther than that. Most of the growth management proposals of the late 1980s contained this exact same idea. (I’d hyperlink to old CP&DR stories about Willie Brown and regional planning, but the stories are so old we don’t have them on-line.) The policy contained in SB 375 is already in place in Contra Costa County, thanks to the county’s 1990 growth management initiative, which created an urban limit line and requires local governments to adhere to a growth management policy in order to qualify for transportation funds.

It’s important to remember, however, that SB 375 is only one of several state laws and policies dealing with growth – and unless the Schwarzenegger administration is serious about using all of them consistently, the impact of the new law is likely to be reduced. There is, for example, AB 857, the 2002 bill that requires all state actions to promote a smart growth development pattern but has never really been implemented. There’s also Schwarzenegger’s own “Strategic Growth Council,” which is supposed to address growth issues but may in fact be mostly designed to promote public-private partnerships on transportation infrastructure projects. And, of course, there is the $40 billion in 2006 bonds, which could play a big role in altering growth patterns if the money was spent with smart growth in mind.

The good news is that some of the bond money is being spent to promote a different growth pattern, including the $1 billion or so in the 2006 housing bond set aside for infill and transit-oriented development.

But most of the infrastructure money – for transportation schools and flood control – is not being doled out with smart growth or greenhouse gas emissions in mind. And Schwarzenegger isn’t pushing very hard to change the allocation system.

All of this means that, even though California is finally going to tie some transportation money to growth management, not everybody in Sacramento is traveling in the same direction.

– Bill Fulton