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AG Joins Lawsuit Against Highway-Friendly “Transit Plan” in San Diego

When the San Diego Association of Governments passed its regional transportation plan, which will direct transportation spending in the region for decades, the agency hailed the plan as a national model.  This was the first plan passed that followed the standards of SB 375, the California environmental law that set greenhouse gas reduction targets based on transportation and development planning.

Kamala Harris

The agency declared victory, but many local advocates weren’t convinced.

“If this is a national and regional model, we’re in bad shape,” Dough McFetridge of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation grumbled to Streetsblog last November.  ”We have a need — a tremendous need — for transit right now, today. This proposal puts funding transit off into so far in to the future that many of us won’t be around anymore.”

McFetridge and other environmental groups pressed forward with a lawsuit claiming that the EIR for the plan was flawed because it didn’t take into account the impact new highway construction would have on vehicles miles traveled.  This week their lawsuit received a major boost when California Attorney General Kamala Harris joined their efforts.

“The 3.2 million residents of the San Diego region already suffer from the seventh worst ozone pollution in the country,” said Harris in a press release. “Spending our transit dollars in the right way today will improve the economy, create sustainable jobs and ensure that future generations do not continue to suffer from heavily polluted air.”

The lawsuit argues that the environmental review of the transit plan did not adequately analyze the public health impacts of the increased air pollution. The San Diego region already has a very high risk of cancer from particulate matter emitted by diesel engines and vehicles and there is no analysis as to whether this risk will increase.  By prioritizing highway expansion in the first years of the plan, SANDAG claims more pedestrian, bicycle and transit expansion in the plan even though those plans may never happen.  The bulk of the investment in transit and active transportation begins decades from now.

“The attorney general’s intervention in this case supports our argument that SANDAG’s plan is deeply flawed,” said Kathryn Phillips of the Sierra Club.  ”We’re encouraged that the State of California is serious about limiting air pollution and climate change pollution created by transportation in the region.”

While greenhouse gases initially decrease in the plan to the levels required by state law, the EIR shows that after 2020, driving miles will increase and overall greenhouse gas emissions from driving will continue to increase at least until 2050.  SANDAG claims that many of the miles of new highway projects should count as transit projects because many of the new lanes will be "managed" lanes similar to the Express Lanes coming to Los Angeles or HOT Lanes such as SR 91 in Orange County.  Because buses will have "congestion free" access to these lanes, SANDAG argues these are really transit projects.

The plaintiffs didn't buy this argument.

“If we hope to avoid the worst of climate change, we must act aggressively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage compact, transit-oriented development," writes Kevin Bundy, Center for Biological Diversity. "The Attorney General’s office recognizes that SANDAG’s approach to transportation and land use development will do just the opposite. We can’t wait any longer to address these issues.”

Even those that offered tepid support for the plan last year see hope for a better plan in the lawsuit.

“The lawsuit should serve as a reality check for our region’s leaders to take smart growth planning more seriously," writes Elyse Lowe with Move San Diego.  "Even in auto-centric, sprawled out San Diego, quality, location-efficient jobs and housing growth  must be served by quality transportation options to meet California’s legislated climate emission goals.  Hopefully the gut check from the (attorney general) will result in more sustainable land uses, and more funding toward transportation options.”

For its part, SANDAG hasn't commented on the lawsuit other than brief comments from Encinitas Mayor and SANDAG Chair Jerome Stocks who tells Voice of San Diego that he is dissapointed in Harris' decision to join the lawsuit but wouldn't comment beyond that.

How will this lawsuit impact transportation at Los Angeles' regional planning organization?  Streetsblog will examine that question on Monday.

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