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Environment & Science

Judge: San Diego transportation plan fails to consider California's climate policy, greenhouse gas emissions

A Superior Court judge has ruled that a regional transportation plan in San Diego failed to take into account greenhouse gas emissions and how to limit them over several decades, as required under state law.

Judge Timothy B. Taylor’s ruling against the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, is the first time a court has weighed in on California’s controversial requirement that planners spell out ways to cut greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming.

Planning and development lawyers, public agencies, and climate activists have been among those anticipating the ruling. SANDAG’s transportation plan was the first major document of its kind issued since the state passed SB 375 four years ago, mandating greenhouse gas cuts in planning.  

The $200 billion plan incuded funding for highways, toll roads and eventually, public transportation in San Diego County.

Environmentalists complained from the start that the transportation plan emphasized development and funding for a car-centric county. Community and environmental groups challenged SANDAG’s plan. Their lawyer, Rachel Hooper, argues the 200 billion dollar strategy promoted old thinking: freeways and toll roads, not public transportation.

"It’s going to lead to urban sprawl," Hooper says. "It's going to expand the freeway capacity in the region significantly, adding more cars on the road, which will cause more air pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions - which is exactly the reverse of state policy."

SANDAG included a “sustainable communities strategy,” aimed at promoting denser communities and infill development.

Hooper says state law obligated SANDAG to discourage carbon emissions from cars and trucks to match the state’s carbon-cutting strategy. SANDAG claimed that failing to do that wasn’t a big environmental problem. 

"In this case SANDAG unfortunately did not disclose the problem with its plan relating to climate change," Hooper says. "The fact that its plan in the later years would increase greenhouse gas emissions in the region rather than reduce them."

According to Judge Taylor, SANDAG argued that California’s climate policies, including a 2005 executive order from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, didn’t add up to “a `plan' for GHG [greenhouse gas] reduction, and no state plan has been adopted to achieve the 2050 goal.” As a result, wrote Taylor, the anticipated environmental impact of climate change was underestimated.

“[B]eing the first in the state … carried some risk,” Taylor wrote. But he found “that the EIR is inconsistent with state law.”

SANDAG's communications manager, Colleen Windsor, says the organization stands behind its work.

"We are disappointed by the ruling," she says, adding that SANDAG was not surprised: a tentative ruling the judge issued came to the same conclusion last week. 

SANDAG argued it planned to spend more on public transit over each decade the blueprint covers. And it said its sustainable community strategy would promote dense urban development, which could reduce climate change impacts. 

"I think that maybe we are maybe being made an example of, if you will," Windsor says."And maybe we’ll be clarifying some language, hopefully, but its definitely going to set some precedent."

That’s the hope of environmentalists, but the case likely is far from over. SANDAG’s board will meet Friday and will discuss next steps in the case. Judge Taylor has written in his ruling that he expects the group to appeal.

We've got the ruling: 

Superior Court Ruling on SANDAG Regional Transportation Plan CEQA

This story was updated at 6:50 pm.