2016 Legislative Year in Review: Solid Victories and a Clear Path Forward

Joshua Stark Headshot

 Flickr Marcin WicharyIt is not often that transportation advocates get to claim “solid victories” in a year-in-review summary. But this year, a lot of hard work paid off and California’s leaders made some great decisions about our state’s transportation future. We passed historic legislation to drastically cut our greenhouse gas emissions, began investing new money in making it safer to walk and bike, and initiated new public processes to better connect transportation and land use planning to air quality and equity.

Of course, we didn’t win everything, and the future is still uncertain. But even the losses provide us with a clear course of action in the coming year. And with a historic election looming, 2017 will be vital to getting a new legislature on track to build on these successes, and solve our transportation problems in ways that benefit all Californians.

Three Cheers for SB 32

The biggest news by far is the passage of SB 32, California’s groundbreaking 2030 greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. SB 32 is a simple, powerful bill – it tasks the Air Resources Board with ensuring that our GHG emissions are cut 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. This is the strongest statewide target in the country, and it cements California’s position as a global leader for bold climate action. It is a great privilege and responsibility to be advocating for equitable climate action in this state at this time, because California’s policy actions serve as a model for other states and localities to follow. Thousands of people contributed to this win, and we are proud and grateful to be celebrating it!

Big wins for equity

This year, state advocates set some solid goals to increase equity, and we met many of them. 

The sleeper win of the year (and a personal favorite of mine) is the passage of SB 1000 (Leyva, D-Chino). This bill is simple yet transformative. It requires that cities and counties add an Environmental Justice Element to their General Plans. And that is a Very. Big. Deal.

This bill requires local elected officials and government staff to explicitly identify their most disadvantaged communities and then design policies to reduce health risks and address the needs of those communities. It also gives local advocates leverage to pressure decision-makers to plan solutions where they are most needed. Look out for an environmental justice plan coming to a locality near you!

In the realm of cap-and-trade funding, wins included AB 1550 (Gomez, D-Los Angeles), AB 197 (Garcia, D-Coachella), and AB 2722 (Burke, D-Inglewood).

AB 1550 changes and increases requirements for the use of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF, the state’s carbon cap-and-trade revenues) to benefit disadvantaged communities. Building on the precedent of SB 535, which in 2012 set an initial floor for investments benefiting disadvantaged communities, this new law requires the state to invest a minimum of 25% of GGRF dollars within designated disadvantaged communities, and ensure that those investments benefit the people living there. Additionally, it must spend a minimum of 5% of the GGRF on projects that benefit low-income families within ½ mile of these communities. The GGRF must also spend a minimum of 5% on projects for low-income families anywhere in the state. Overall, AB 1550 increases the percentage of GGRF funds benefiting disadvantaged communities and low-income families from 25% to 35%. Securing these resources for low-income households is a great win for equity, especially considering the severe disinvestment that many of these communities have experienced.

AB 197 provides additional oversight of the Air Resources Board (ARB) by the legislature and increases the transparency of the ARB’s work. This came about because over the past decade, some in the environmental justice community have grown wary of the authority granted to the Air Resources Board to regulate emissions reductions and cap-and-trade expenditures, especially since California's most disadvantaged communities continue to experience some of the worst air quality in the nation. The bill establishes some good equity practices, such as the distribution of data on air pollution, even down to the sub-county level.

AB 2722 creates an entirely new program for the GGRF: Transformative Climate Communities. This program will spend GGRF dollars on neighborhood-level projects that “provide local economic, environmental, and health benefits to disadvantaged communities.” The investments are to be comprehensive, innovative projects. TransForm and our allies have some experience at this level, and we look forward to working with the Strategic Growth Council and others to help ensure that active transportation projects and other alternative mobility initiatives get some of these funds.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows: some frustrating losses

Unfortunately, there were some equity losses alongside the victories. TransForm and our allies moved a Transportation Equity bill package, including AB 2222, AB 2796, AB 2332, and AB 1982. This package, along with Senate pro Tem De León’s SB 1387, failed to win enough support to pass the legislature. SB 1387 would have added members to the South Coast Air Quality Management District who reside in L.A.’s most polluted communities, to better ensure that the policies that emerged from that body were taking into consideration its most vulnerable people. This bill is similar in concept to AB 1982, which would have added environmental justice representation to the California Transportation Commission.

Sometimes, the dialogue in opposition to the bills we support is illuminating. In discussing AB 1982, the Chairman of Assembly Transportation, Jim Frazier (D-Oakley), referred to residents of these communities as “special interests,” stating on the dais that if environmental justice voices are brought to the table, then we should ensure other special interests, like freight and goods movement companies, also get a seat. It’s outrageous to suggest that multi-national corporations deserve the same consideration as California communities whose residents suffer from chronic health problems and other real hardships due to our ineffective (and at times destructive and dangerous) transportation infrastructure.

The legislature did not pass our bill to create a reduced fare transit pass program – but all is not lost!  This idea (encapsulated in AB 2222) is a wildly popular concept, and we are prepared to move it again next year.

Disappointing as they may be, these setbacks are why TransFormers get up every morning – to raise awareness among state leaders about the impact of transportation on real people, and push for meaningful solutions that ensure every Californian can get to work, school, and health care, find an affordable place to live, and do so in ways that help fight climate change.

Budget wins

California also made great strides investing in a cleaner, greener future this year. Although auction results for the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund were poor for two quarters (read our op-ed about it here) and many have presaged the end of the program with dire prognostications, the legislature and the Governor were able to come to an agreement on how to invest these vital dollars.

These investments include $150 million for the Transformative Climate Communities program, as well as additional money for public transportation projects. The biggest win for TransForm and our allies, however, was the allocation of $10 million to the State’s Active Transportation Program – a first! We have all worked hard for three years to see GGRF funds invested in bike and pedestrian projects and programs. We know that they reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and they do so by improving the safety and quality of life for people who walk and bike.

Meanwhile… the Special Session is still under way

While most people pack up and leave Sacramento in September, TransForm is sticking around! Although the regular legislative session concluded on September 30 (the deadline for the Governor to sign or veto bills), another session begun early last year continues. It’s the First Extraordinary Session on Transportation and Infrastructure, or as we like to call it, the Special Session. 

Currently, there is a rough proposal on the table to spend $7.5 billion on transportation. But for such a sum, the proposal comes up far too short for public transportation funding, lacks strong language supporting Complete Streets, and includes a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) exemption that goes too far. On the plus side, the funds proposed for the Active Transportation Program are a good start.

We are keeping an eye on the process, since it doesn’t officially end until November 30th. We don’t want to see any last-second deal-making that doesn’t include robust transit investments, stronger walk/bike safety language, and better environmental protections.

Next year is just a couple of months away…

This year’s wins and losses represent solid progress that California’s transportation investments and urban planning policies are prioritizing social equity and climate action. We’re already strategizing about how to advance our agenda in the coming legislative session, so that we’ll be ready to hit the ground running in January. We’ll make sure to let you know about our updated legislative priorities in the months ahead.

One thing’s for sure: there’s certainly no lack of work for us in Sacramento. Already we know that we’ll keep working to reduce fares for public transportation, expand service into disadvantaged communities, and advocate for affordable homes close to transit. We’ll also keep looking for ways to help our environmental justice allies to have a seat at the table, to shape new ways of planning and funding the kinds of projects we know will transform our communities and our lives. We can’t do this without your help and support, so thank you and please stay tuned!


About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.