For all its climate leadership, California has a massive blind spot that could very well lead our climate action efforts to fail: Roads.
Why should roads — or more specifically, road spending — be in our sights?
Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in California, and climate pollution from our cars has been dramatically increasing in recent years. There’s widespread agreement that to bend the curve on GHGs, we need to reduce solo driving. But building new roads and widening highways is proven to increase driving, and certainly does nothing to decrease it.
So, what does reduce driving? More high-quality options for people to get where they need to go -- transit, biking, walking, carpooling -- so they can drive just a little less (and save some money doing it). And that’s the good news, that a little less is actually all we need right now: If Californians reduced driving just 1.6 miles per person per day, we’d be on track to saving our planet.
Here’s more good news: every region in the state has goals for how to reduce emissions from transportation. The bad news is that not a single region is on track to meet those goals.
A brief history lesson: A decade ago, TransForm and our allies worked hard to pass SB 375, the landmark law that required regions to make those climate-friendly transportation plans. In 2017, ClimatePlan and TransForm helped pass SB 150, which required reporting on regions’ progress toward those emissions-reducing Regional Transportation Plans. The first report showed that no region is hitting the climate goals in their plans… right now the plans are just plans.
Enter SB 526, authored by the courageous Senator Ben Allen from Santa Monica (who also authored SB 150). TransForm is co-sponsoring SB 526 because this is the biggest transportation and climate issue in the state right now.
As it was first introduced early this year, SB 526 would have done three things:
Create a State Mobility Action Plan for Healthy Communities (more on this below);
Require the state’s largest regions to provide the state with the data to determine if they are on track to meet their climate goals; and,
Direct the California Transportation Commission to step in when regions are not hitting the climate goals in their Regional Transportation Plans, and prioritize some state spending for projects in those plans that reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). (Streetsblog did an excellent job summing up the bill.)
TransForm and our allies pushed hard to get SB 526 past its first major hurdle in the Senate Transportation Committee, chaired by Senator Beall of San Jose. Sadly, the only way the bill could survive the committee hearing was for the author to remove arguably the most important part: the third provision that would align state spending with state goals to reduce climate pollution.
This provision in SB 526 would not have taken one dime away from regions. What it would have done is force regions to put our money where their mouth is — where it needs to go to address the climate crisis — towards more sustainable transportation options to help reduce solo driving. Alas, the simple notion of prioritizing state tax dollars for public transit, bike, and pedestrian projects was too bold a move for senators on the Transportation Committee.
If there’s one thing to celebrate even as we lose this battle (but not the war!), it is having Senator Allen on our side. Senator Allen is a climate champion willing to go to the mat on this thorny issue. After all, he authored SB 150, which made the need for SB 526 clear.
In arguing for a “meaningful bill,” Senator Allen got the agreement of the Senate Transportation Committee Chair to continue to work on language that will address the dire disconnect between climate goals and state transportation funding. And during its third hearing, in Senate Housing, the committee offered a number of good amendments that further aligned transportation and housing as important factors in addressing our climate goals.
Important provisions remain in SB 526, particularly the creation of a State Mobility Action Plan for Healthy Communities, to be administered by an interagency working group whose purpose would be to ensure that regional growth is designed and implemented in ways that help us achieve our state goals, not just for climate, but also for our environment, equity, health, and housing.
This is vitally important work. Infrastructure investments are so large and slow to complete — and their impacts last for decades — that we must immediately begin to change how we plan and build them. In five or six years, the length of time to complete many transportation infrastructure projects funded this year or next, it may be too late to turn this ship.
Our failure to change would be lauded by those peddling road expansion and fossil fuels for short-term gain. But it’s time we focus on the long-term pain that continuing the status quo will inflict. It’s time to make our best plans reality, and courageously shift our transportation priorities and spending, to do everything we can to save ourselves, our communities, and our planet from the worst case scenario we’re staring in the face.