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SCAG Takes a Pass on History, Moves Forward with Lower GHG Reductions

5_28_09_sprawl.jpgPhoto of Riverside via Miizzard/Flickr.

Last May, I had the chance to sit down with Michael Woo, the former Los Angeles City Councilman and Mayoral Candidate, urban planner, USC Professor and Climate Change activist.  Woo expressed hope that the Southern California Association of Governments would set the bar for other regions when deciding how to follow new state laws by setting high targets for emissions reductions.  The reductions are a state requirement after the passage of California's internationally lauded Smart Growth Law in 2008, SB 375.

Yesterday, SCAG took a pass on history and sided with the sprawl lobby in endorsing reduced targets for the region which includes Los Angeles County as well as the Inland Empire, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernadino Counties.  Instead of setting the goal of reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 8% in 2020 and 13% in 2035 as recommended by the state's Air Resource Board after a lengthy public process, SCAG chose to set goals of 6% reduction in 2020 and 8% in 2035.  The 8/13 targets were rejected by a 21 to 29 vote.

Unfortunately, this means that design standards and community plans throughout the region will have less density, encourage fewer transportation options, and create less vibrant communities with less open space over the next twenty five years than they would have if SCAG would have followed the state board's recommendations.

This rejection marks a victory for the Building Industry Association which lobbied for a 5% reduction target and distributed misinformation far and wide to preserve Southern Californians right to sprawl.  The BIA claimed the rejected benchmarks would push gas prices to $9, would cripple the economy, and were completely unrealistic anyway.  That independent reviews showed that a plan to meet the 8/13 benchmarks would increase gas costs by two cents a gallon over twenty five years, would save the average working family save $3,600 annually on transportation costs, would create design standards that would encourage growth and calls for lower reductions than the ones passed in the Sacramento and Bay regions somehow didn't make the B.I.A.'s "hysteria sheet."

And that the SCAG Board chose to believe these phony statistics, without a methodology showing how they came to be, over the hard work of their own staff tells us a lot about the SCAG Board.

After the vote, the BIA was crowing.  Richard Lambros, the executive director of the association told the Associated Press:

They made a decision that is both aggressive and achievable and will make a significant reduction in emissions while still protecting California's economy.

Meanwhile, environmentalists scorned the decision.  The same Associated Press article quotes a frustrated representative of the American Lung Association, while other articles quote NRDC's Amanda Eaken, who has emerged as something of an expert on this issue.  Locally, ClimatePlan staffer and Streetsblog contributor Gloria Ohland commented simply that "we have more work to do."

Glen Becerra.  Photo:
Glen Becerra. Photo:

The meeting itself was a wild affair that would make your average Metro Board Member wonder who was in charge of this circus.  Public comment was cut short as was debate amongst the Board Members.  Despite the close 29-21 vote, most of the Board Members who did get the chance to speak were in favor of the reduced targets including an over-the-top "dare" from Simi Valley City Councilman Glen Becerra that anyone with the gall to oppose the smaller goals should stand and face him.

Oddly, Beccera sounded a completely different tone when there was a microphone in front of him.  He told the Ventura County Star that he really, really would have liked to vote for higher standards, but just couldn't:

“Everybody wants to meet the higher number,” said SCAG Second Vice President Glen Becerra. “In our heart of hearts if we had certainty that we could do that without wiping out an already fragile economy we would do that. But no one could give us that certainty. They could only say it’s worth trying.”

So what happened?  How did sprawl win the day?  Part of the problem is that the debate, as covered by the press and as presented by Beccera, is portrayed as a "developer vs environmentalist" debate instead of "environmentalists, public health experts, transit advocates, and developers vs some other developers."  In addition to the "usual suspects" testifying in favor of the higher reduction goals yesterday, there were also six developers that believe that dense development and transportation options are the future for Southern California.

A second problem is that state cutbacks have led to less funds being available throughout the region to help encourage Smart Growth Development.  An email ClimatePlan sent to supporters after the vote noted that much of the debate was about this lack of funds and not that clean air, transit and vibrant downtowns were bad for the economy.  However, much of the press following the meeting reverted back to the easier-to-write story of "environmentalists v jobs."

In a cycnical move to deflect some criticism, the Board did vote to revisit today's vote if the state's Air Resources Board, the body that developed the 8/13 target, came through with eleven action items.  ClimatePlan reports that it's not likely to meet these items as many of them, including adoption of the 30/10 plan, are well outside of the ability of the ARB.

Last, a handful of local leaders who had a vote today missed the meeting.  Los Angeles City Council Members Eric Garcetti, Bernard Parks and Ed Reyes all sent letters of support for 8/13 instead of attending and voting.  Councilman Dennis Zine, who's taken some heat at Streetsblog, was the only Council Member in attendance and deserves some praise for taking time out of his recess to attend this important meeting.

Local activist Beth Steckler expressed frustration with the rest of the Councilmen

We appreciate the letters of support from la city council members on this vote, but we need more leadership from the city to really be sure the interests of Angelinos are represented at SCAG.

Today's vote was hardly the last step in the saga of how standards will be set for Greenhouse Gas reduction mandates for Southern California.  Streetsblog will let you know how you can be involved in making sure that today's vote isn't the last word in how Southern Californians feel about Climate Change, clean air and transportation options.

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