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by Louisa May

La freeewayCalifornia lawmakers have passed Senate Bill 375, the first bill to link housing, land use, and transportation funding in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions and stop urban sprawl.


The California League of Conservation Voters(CLCV) and the Natural Resources Defense Council co-sponsored the bill. Tom Adams, President of CLCV says, “We will never achieve our greenhouse gas reduction goals or energy independence unless we stop encouraging sprawl and start locating housing closer to jobs. This is the equation for solving the problems we face in terms of housing, getting shorter commute times for people. When you have shorter commutes, you reduce vehicle miles traveled.”

“Vehicle miles traveled” are key words in SB 375. The bill requires many things of many people. Metropolitan planning organizations are required to include sustainable community strategies in their regional transportation plans for the purpose of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So, for example, part of the bill reads, “a transit priority project must contain 50% residential use, based on total square footage and provide a minimum net density of 20 dwellings per acre, and be within one half mile of an existing or planned major transit stop or high quality transit corridor. For purposes of defining a transit priority project, all parcels within the project must have no more than 25% of their area farther from a transit stop and not over 10% or 100 residential units, whichever is less, less that a mile from a transit stop or corridor.”

What are the chances that suburban developers are going to get the go-ahead on their residential projects? With this law, everyone involved in planning will be looking at “vehicle miles traveled” by residents to reach the workplace.

Some experts say that this bill could be a model for state and national policy. But critics of SB 375 worry that the bill creates new levels and layers of government. This may have the unintended effect of making the law unwieldy at ground level. While the bill offers local governments regulatory and other incentives to offer more compact development and transportation alternatives, these projects are more easily accomplished in larger cities. Agricultural communities and smaller towns may have a more difficult time meeting the definition of “transit priority projects” and lose funding. And local officials worry about ceding zoning powers and transportation planning to the State.

It’s a 17,000 word bill. The summary alone is 12 pages long, and the specifics of the bill are daunting. This is true mainly because of the proponents’ expectations that the members of 17 metropolitan planning organizations and its regional transportation authority will agree on how to reduce vehicle miles traveled and meet concrete targets to reduce emissions.

Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) submitted the bill, and he hopes the outcome of his efforts will be to bring down California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020, which is a 30% cut from expected emissions. State officials say that fuel efficient cars and factories won’t be enough. Steinberg agrees. “Our communities must change the way they grow.”

David Goldberg, a spokesman for Smart Growth Network, a non-profit effort coordinated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, had this to say, “California led the way into our culture of car dependence, so it’s only appropriate that the State lead the way out.”

Check out our Green Pages for information on money saving tips that help the environment. Once there, click on the Green Forum to see more articles by our green feature writer Louisa May.

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