California state officials aren't even dancing around the issue any more. They're openly admitting that the state can't possibly meet the greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals contained in AB 32 without a statewide strategy to reduce driving.

But high-ranking state officials still aren't saying that Sacramento will mandate a limit on vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, as part of the land use component of implementing AB 32. At least they weren't tipping their hand on Friday, when many of them spoke at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Washington, D.C.

"At this point," said Panama Bartholomy of the California Energy Commission, "we are moving forward in a voluntary manner to see how much local governments can do. But this will go along a path from voluntary to mandatory."

"Land use is the key," said James Goldstene, executive officer of the California Air Resources Board. "But there are basic questions. Are targets mandatory or voluntary? Are there fees on ‘high-GHG projects'? Will we provide thresholds or guidance? Will there be relief for good projects, thresholds that discourage sprawl and required mitigations?"

While Goldstene posed these questions, Cynthia Bryant, the director of the Governor's Office of Planning and Research, still appeared to be clinging to the idea that California can meet the AB 32 standard of a 20% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020 through voluntary means. "We need a carrot so big that it is a carrot stick," she said.

State officials have been getting more direct in their public rhetoric about VMT lately, acknowledging that drastic steps must be taken to limit or reduce it. Two weeks ago, CARB's Anthony Eggert, pinch-hitting for board chair Mary Nichols at a land use conference in Los Angeles, raised the VMT question but stopped short of saying that restrictions on overall driving are necessary. On Friday in Washington, the rhetoric was even more direct.

Bartholomy also stopped short of calling for a mandatory VMT cap but came very close to suggesting it. "At least we can give some guidance to regional agencies," he said. "Issues like greenhouse gas mitigation is best done on a regional level than on a local level, with the locals fighting each other. We can create a statewide target for land use and hand those targets to the regions.

-- Bill Fulton