California's continuing budget woes, coupled with the nation's stubborn recession, could hinder the state's ability to meet its ambitious goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
This is one of the chief concerns of the Regional Targets Advisory Committee (RTAC), which will recommend how the California Air Resources Board should allocate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions-reduction targets among the state's metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). While the 21-member committee has made no decisions, it appears headed toward setting reduction targets that do not significantly take into account economic factors. The committee also recognizes that the availability of funding will affect implementation.
The allocation methodology devised by the RTAC will help guide the Air Resources Board when it establishes emissions-reduction goals for automobiles and light trucks in each of the state's 18 metropolitan regions, as called for in that portion of the AB 32 implementation plan dealing with land use and vehicle miles traveled. The climate change law, passed three years ago, ties directly to SB 375, which requires MPOs to adopt regional sustainable land use strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The committee has until the end of September to make its recommendations to the board.
Increased use of public transit is widely seen by public officials as crucial for cutting automobile emissions. But during the RTAC's July 22 meeting, Gary Gallegos, a committee member and executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments, said that the 2009-2010 state budget eliminates state support for transit operations for the next five years. He warned that without the fiscal resources to build or expand public transit, California and its metropolitan regions will fall short of meeting their GHG reduction goals.
"If we want to do this stuff, we've got to figure out how we're going to pay for it," Gallegos said.
Carolyn Cavecche, mayor of the City of Orange and a member of the Orange County Transportation Authority, told the RTAC that her agency faces a loss of $314 million over the next five years because of  state budget cuts and lower-than-expected sales tax revenues. Service levels will decrease dramatically, predicted Cavecche. She urged the RTAC to include recommendations for funding transit in its final report.
"The transit operators are not going to exist next year as they do right now," Cavecche said.
RTCA members were somewhat divided on how far they should push the transit funding issue. Jim Wunderman, who heads the business group Bay Area Council, said that AB 32 and SB 375 marked major points of agreement and achievement for California, but that the state's fiscal policy directly undercuts them. "I think calling the Legislature on the [funding] question is appropriate," Wunderman said.
Chairman Mike McKeever, who heads the Sacramento Council of Governments, said the RTAC lacks the political clout to influence immediate state fiscal decisions. But he suggested that SB 375 author Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), now the president pro-tem of the state Senate, be invited to a future RTAC meeting to discuss these concerns.
The RTAC continues to wrestle with how much weight it should give economic factors in setting GHG reduction targets. Committee member Carol Whiteside, founder of the Modesto-based Great Valley Center, has repeatedly argued that lowering emission reduction targets for economic reasons would take the pressure off regions and local governments to comply with the law. They need to find and implement creative emissions solutions, she says, and not look for an escape route based on fiscal issues.
Committee member and Ontario City Manager Greg Devereaux disagreed somewhat, saying that the committee's recommendations should strive to strike a balance between a locale's housing needs and economic growth and its emission-reduction targets. For example, Ontario is willing to take on a substantial portion of its region's job and housing development (see CP&DR Local Watch, July 1, 2009) but that means its GHG emissions will rise, he said. Any methodology recommended by the RTAC should try to accommodate such tensions, he argued, noting that the attorney general's office is already pressing the city to specify in its updated general plan how it plans to meet SB 375 emissions-reductions targets that have yet to be established.
Coming up with a formula to allocate emission-reduction targets among the 18 metropolitan regions committee appears to be dividing the committee. Some members want to rely on performance standards based on regional greenhouse gas emissions modeling. Others are pushing for a "best management practices" system in which regions would have to earn a certain number of points for adopting practices such as zoning for compact development and congestion pricing on roads.
Committee member Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, has little confidence in emissions models. He says the models are inconsistent from region to region and not widely understood by experts outside each region, in part because the models contain different assumptions.

Creating a list of best management practices would not ensure precise GHG reductions, Wallerstein said. But he said it would force local governments to take actions -– such as zoning for high density; pushing mixed-use development that encourages walking; raising public parking rates; and putting a price on road use during times of congestion – that would start to reduce greenhouse gases.
Committee member Stuart Cohen, who heads the advocacy group TransForm, said any checklist must take into account different place types, such as suburban versus inner-city. Raising density levels in the "wrong place," for example, could lead to an increase in vehicle miles traveled and thus more GHG emissions, he said.
Committee member Jerry Walters, of consulting firm Fehr & Peers, concedes the models are not perfect, but he argues that the system should move toward use of models quickly. "The time is now to initiate an effort to get the models on better footing," he said. The RTAC, he added, is the ideal panel to evaluate models and current scientific literature. "We're missing that opportunity."
McKeever said the committee will address the "very meaty issues" of methodology and other policies at the next meeting, scheduled for August 5 in Los Angeles. The committee also plans to meet in Sacramento on August 18 and on September 1 and 16. A meeting on deadline day  – September 30 – is also possible, he said.
RTAC website:
CP&DR's SB 375 Resources Page.