Remember this past summer, when we ruminated about the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s ongoing update to the Regional Transportation Plan (Transportation 2035)? Remember when we were peeved by MTC’s unwillingness to heed the sage advice of the Advisory Council, the body that encouraged MTC to reevaluate $191 billion worth of “committed” projects, including several billion dollars worth of freeway widening whose construction would be directly detrimental to achieving MTC’s supposed goals of planning for a more livable, transit-oriented Bay Area? Remember when we were frustrated by MTC’s insistence at overlooking the fact that widening freeways — even to create brand-new High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes — nonetheless creates wider freeways and induces demand, thus only promoting more automobile use in the long run? And because of this tendency to fund projects that promote automobile use, remember that we were highly skeptical of MTC’s stated commitment to uphold AB 32’s greenhouse gas emission mandates, dismissing said commitment as merely lip service?
Guess what? Attorney General Jerry Brown agrees.
Last week, the Attorney General sent a letter to MTC (link to PDF), as a response to the Notice of Preparation for the Draft EIR of the RTP. The letter begins with a likely sarcastic (in light of what follows) appeal to MTC’s ego, but it quickly turns into a rather scathing admonishment of the “committed” status lockbox that MTC uses to indefinitely protect ill-advised projects. First, the letter reminds MTC of its legal obligations under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to evaluate alternatives to its proposed plan that mitigate adverse environmental impacts of that plan:
CEQA was enacted to ensure that public agencies do not approve projects unless they include feasible alternatives or mitigation measures that substantially reduce the significant environmental effects of the project. CEQA requires that “[e]ach public agency shall mitigate or avoid the significant effects on the environment of projects that it carries out or approves whenever it is feasible to do so.” This requirement is recognized as “[t]he core of a DEIR….” Therefore, a DEIR must identify mitigation measures and examine alternatives that would reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
Then, the letter makes clear that MTC’s Transportation 2035 proposal does no such thing, because it insists on moving forward — without reevaluation — projects, such as freeway widening, that will have adverse impacts to climate change. The letter discusses an important point raised here on a few occasions — namely, that many things have changed since the last update of the RTP. In most quotes below, the bold emphasis is mine:
CEQA requires that an EIR evaluate the potential environmental impacts of an entire project, which in this context we believe represents the entire $223 billion of authorized expenditures – not just the $31.6 billion for projects MTC identifies as “discretionary,” but also the $191 billion for projects identified as “committed,” projects included in the prior Transportation Plan but not yet constructed. The EIR for the prior Transportation Plan was prepared before AB 32, with its GHG-emission reduction goals, was enacted.
The letter then goes on to additional requirements set forth by the federal government and the California Transportation Commission’s guidelines for RTP updates. And then, the letter delivers the crushing blow to MTC’s lockbox strategy:
MTC staff’s analysis indicates that many of the “committed” expansion projects support only one, in some cases none, of the identified performance goals. … The DEIR should address the implications of the potential transit shortfalls on GHG emissions and whether those impacts could be reduced by using funds currently proposed to be allocated to low-performing “committed” projects.
We understand that the $29 billion of “committed” projects for transit and roadway expansion have been proposed for inclusion in the new Transportation Plan without renewed evaluation of the relative need for, benefits of, or impacts of these projects vis-à-vis others, and regardless of how well they meet MTC’s identified goals and performance objectives. We urge MTC to rectify this omission with respect to the “committed” transit and roadway expansion projects (which reflect only 15% of the “committed” funding).
I was so pleased to see that the letter specifically points out the need for superior analysis of induced traffic demand on freeways, even for HOT lanes, requiring MTC to study the impacts the creation of a HOT lane network could have on vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and transit use in the Bay Area, particularly if it paves new lanes, rather than converting existing lanes for exclusive high-occupancy use:
The DEIR should also address, at a minimum, … [t]he impact of high-occupancy toll (“HOT”) lanes on carpooling, transit ridership, VMT, and GHG emissions. A principal benefit of the HOT lane network is savings in travel time for people driving alone (both in the HOT lane and in other lanes). Some commentators have expressed concerns about the effect of HOT lanes on “induced travel,” noting that “at the same time that some drivers are encouraged to stay away from congestion or higher peak-period tolls, others are drawn to use the HOT lanes because they are relatively less congested than other options.” At least one expert panel has expressed concerns that a proposed increase in freeway lane miles for a “managed lane” network similar to the HOT lane network proposed here would “perpetuate auto-oriented development and reduce transit’s competitiveness.”
To close, Jerry Brown issues a challenge to MTC:
Global warming presents California with one of its greatest challenges to date. MTC has the opportunity to take steps to address the problem of climate change constructively, while educating the public and decision-makers. We urge MTC to meet the challenge with the Proposed Transportation Plan and DEIR.
The hypocrisy of MTC’s sacrosanct treatment of the “committed” lockbox is indeed frustrating. But finally — after years of being shot down at meetings by the stern remarks of MTC representatives who indicated that the committed projects were “not up for discussion” — it is encouraging to see that the committed projects will be up for discussion after all. As the critieria by which we judge the legality of regional plans evolve, so, too, must MTC’s plans evolve. Projects that have been on the books for years (well before the advent of climate change legislation) must be reevaluated in light of recent legislative developments. Not only are tools falling into place that citizens can use to hold MTC — and, perhaps even more importantly, its analogues scattered across California — accountable, but what is even better is that the State is both supporting and affirming the validity of those very tools. Thank you, Jerry Brown!