SDUT: California speeding toward fight over driving limits in age of climate change and electric cars

July 15, 2018 – The San Diego Union Tribune – Joshua Emerson Smith reports – Top air-quality regulators at the state Capitol may be on a collision course with local power players when it comes to how frequently Californians should drive their cars in the state’s internationally lauded fight against climate change.

Many regional lawmakers and other officials have started pushing back on the notion that commuters need to limit their daily driving — which overwhelmingly consists of people cruising to work alone in their cars and trucks.

As the California Air Resources Board tightens its standards for greenhouse-gas emissions from regional transportation sectors, many local authorities have started arguing that adoption of electric vehicles will make it unnecessary to reign in so-called vehicle miles traveled, or VMT.

“I think it’s a very bad metric to hang our hat on,” said San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who also serves on the region’s premier transportation and planning agency, the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG.

Roberts, appointed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson to the air board in 1995, has sometimes stood in opposition to the agency’s predominant thinking. He points out that dramatic improvements in the state’s air quality since the 1980s came as the number of cars on the road spiked.

“People said the only way to improve air quality was to reduce vehicle miles traveled,” said Roberts. “Well, vehicle miles traveled increased substantially and air quality improved dramatically. I think the same relationship exists for greenhouse gas — and the same mentalities we have to fight against.”

Ratcheting up the pressure, the air board now plans to release scorecards this fall grading more than a dozen municipal planning organizations on efforts to get people out of their cars and onto public transit, bikes and sidewalks, including SANDAG, the Southern California Association of Governments and the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

The new accounting, mandated by the state Legislature, will give the public a unique opportunity to compare regional progress on reductions in daily, per-capita greenhouse gases as well as VMT.

“We know that more needs to be done to make transportation more reliable and to reduce vehicle miles traveled across the state,” Mary Nichols, long-time chair of the air board, told members of the California Transportation Commission at a first-ever joint meeting in June.

“Technology, like zero-emission vehicles, will carry us far, but it will not be enough to get us where we need to go,” she added.

The historic meeting was a window into the disconnect between lawmakers and policy officials on the need to limit driving.

Members of the state’s transportation commission seemed sympathetic to the notion that electric vehicles would allow the state to continue its car-centric approach to planning.

Many were caught off guard, however, as a parade of environmental groups spoke in support of boosting funding for costly transit projects, nixing plans for housing developments far from urban job centers and even discouraging people from driving using toll lanes that charge more during rush-hour traffic.

“If everyone … had a zero-emission vehicle, give me the breakdown of how that would not help us meet our greenhouse-gas goals?” Commissioner Paul Van Konynenburg said at the gathering, seemingly somewhat perplexed.

“We had a lot of speakers that talked about how they didn’t want to see any new (highway) capacity projects at all,” he added.

While the air board is tasked with cleaning up pollution from vehicles, the commission is responsible for doling out nearly all of the transportation dollars in the state that aren’t locally controlled.

The two public agencies plan to convene again in the winter, in accordance with state rules approved last fall that now require them to meet twice a year.

The numbers behind climate goals and VMT

The air board’s efforts to limit driving are intended to help meet California’s overall goals of reducing greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020 and 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

The state celebrated last week when it announced that it had already satisfied its 2020 target years ahead of schedule, thanks largely to low-carbon fuel standards, renewable-energy requirements on electric utilities and a wet winter nearly two years ago that generated lots of low-carbon hydropower.

The news seemed to bolster the idea that efforts to fight climate change may not require people to radically shift their driving habits.

However, experts agree that satisfying the state’s next climate benchmark will be radically more difficult. Much of that burden will likely rest on reducing emissions from the transportation sector, which currently account for roughly 40 percent of the state’s carbon footprint, as compared to about 16 percent for electricity.

“As electricity becomes cleaner, the proportion of total statewide (greenhouse gas) emissions from transportation is increasing,” said Juan Matute, deputy director at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies. “Cars have a long turn-over cycle and our urban and regional design has an even longer time horizon for change.”

To help meet that challenge, the air board has been tasked with reducing by 2035greenhouse gases for the transportation sector 25 percent below a 2005 baseline.

By the end of the next decade, the air board staff anticipates that the state will have made significant progress tightening the state’s low carbon fuel standard as well as renewable energy requirements for investor-owned utilities.

However, they predict that those zero-emission vehicles won’t be as ubiquitous as many guess.

With electric and plug-in hybrid cars expected to account for 40 percent of all sales by the end of the next decade, such clean vehicles would make up just under 16 percent of California’s light-duty fleet, up from less than 2 percent today. And those electric cars will be plugging into a grid that’s estimated to be running on just 50 percent renewable power.

Those advances, according to the air board, mean that the average Californian still has to lop off about 1.6 miles a day from their car or truck trips to meet the 2035 target.

“We’re not talking about no drive days or telling people they can’t own a car,” said Nicole Dolney, chief of the transportation planning branch for the air board. “We’re just talking about more efficient transportation.”

Making that reduction will likely require regions to invest in significant amounts of dense housing along beefed-up transit corridors or, officials warn, the state will be in danger of flubbing its internationally watched climate pledge to slash its emissions in the next two decades.

The air board’s numbers haven’t convinced everyone.

“They don’t think there’s going to be clean emissions for a long time,” said Jim Madaffer, who sits on the state transportation commission and runs a San Diego-based government relations consulting firm, Madaffer Enterprises. “They think they need to reduce VMT to achieve their clean air standards. I frankly disagree with them.”

Regional climate targets and local pressure

In March, the air board voted to increase targets on municipal planning organization, or MPOs, for reducing climate emissions from the transportation sector.

The steepest increases came for the four largest MPOs, including SANDAG, the Southern California Association of Governments, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission serving nine Bay Area counties, and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.

By 2035, the agencies are now each required to cut per capita greenhouse gases by 19 percent below the 2005 benchmark, up from between 13 and 15 percent depending on the agency.

There’s an interim benchmark as well to ensure the MPOs are making progress. SANDAG, for example, saw the steepest increase with its per capita target jumping to 15 percent by 2020, up from 7 percent.

Supervisor Roberts said the goals are overly ambitious.

“I would have liked to see slightly lower targets, but at the end of the day, we don’t always reach those targets,” he said. “We may be able to reach them, but what I don’t want to see is the air board, or anyone else, proscribing how we have to reach those targets.”

To meet the goals, MPOs are required by the state to draft so-called Sustainable Communities Strategies whenever they update their multibillion-dollar regional transportation plans.

SANDAG is gearing up to update its often-controversial transportation blueprint and the state-mandated sustainability plan. The process, which happens every four years, determines how to spend the half-cent sales tax known as Transnet, which was extended by voters in 2004 to last until 2048.

Agency staff said they will provide the board several new visions for funding transportation in the region, at least one of which will be aimed at satisfying the air board’s new tougher targets for climate emissions.

“We’ll be running the model to see where each of the alternatives are in terms of achieving the revised targets,” said Charles Stoll, director of land use and transportation planning for SANDAG.

Under pressure from green groups, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer sent SANDAG a letter in April requesting the agency draft a transportation scenario that would not only meet the state goals but help the city realize its ambitious climate action plan.

A key component of the city’s climate document is convincing hundreds of thousands of people to trade in their car commutes for public transit.

Advocates lauded the mayor’s actions. If SANDAG drafts the funding alternative, it’s speculated that the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System could use it to spearhead its own tax increase to expand bus and rail services.

“We know the SANDAG board will not vote for this, but we said, ‘Just give us the road map and we’ll take it to MTS and we’ll fund it,’” said Nicole Capretz, executive director of the Climate Action Campaign, who drafted an early version of San Diego’s climate plan while working at City Hall.

“You do transit or roads. You can’t do both,” she added. “It’s going to be a fight for the soul of our transportation future.”

For years, SANDAG staff, under direction from its 21-member board of elected officials from around the county, has taken an all-of-the-above approach, trying to please everyone from transit advocates to suburban drivers.

“Times are good and employment is up and so there’s a lot of people driving and that’s an issue,” said Stoll with SANDAG. “On the other hand that doesn’t mean that providing fewer choices is the answer.”

The effect has been to leave many sides dissatisfied. Disagreements over how much to spend on rail versus roads has landed SANDAG in court with local environmental groups on numerous occasions.

The agency suffered a major setback after lack of consensus killed efforts to raise additional funding with a proposed sale-tax, known as Measure A, failing to secure a needed two-thirds vote in the 2016 general election.

Read the full report here.

Get On Our List