California’s 2008 Smart Growth Law Has Barely Affected Local Action On Land Use

When SB 375 (Steinberg) passed in 2008, it got a lot of press as a fundamental change in transportation and land use in California. The law would now require regional transportation investments that promote smart growth, with the state setting a metric target for each region to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through less driving.

The law had some immediate problems though, which I outlined after the first regional transportation plan under the law was unveiled in San Diego in 2011. Namely, SB 375 failed to compel any changes in local land use policies, which is where the ultimate authority for permitting new housing lies (the state’s local government lobby added a provision to the original bill that the sustainable transportation plans would not affect local government land use plans).

Now a new National Center for Sustainable Transportation study [PDF] that surveys local land use responses to SB 375 confirms this weak impact on local decision-making. The authors surveyed planning departments in all cities and counties in California regions subject to SB 375 and received 180 responses out of 474 contacted. The found:

A majority of both county and city planning managers report that SB 375 had little to no impact on actions by their city to adopt or strengthen the eight smart growth strategies asked about in the survey. Responses to this effect were especially pronounced for the use of urban growth boundaries and of ag-land and open space preservation, suggesting that cities may have been motivated to support such strategies for other reasons, perhaps even before SB 375.

To be sure, the study highlighted some positives from SB 375 for local governments, primarily related to increased information sharing among them:

At the same time, a majority of cities and counties report that SB 375 has led to increased communication among local governments and other actors about land use issues and has led them to participate more in the regional planning process.

But ultimately the law fails fundamentally to change local government behavior:

When asked about the eight smart growth land use strategies, relatively few local governments anticipate that SB 375 will have a substantial impact on their cities in terms of specific costs or benefits.

In the end, SB 375 will not be a game-changer by itself but a policy foundation upon which more meaningful legislation can build. Examples of more impactful legislation include SB 743 (Steinberg, 2013) and this year’s SB 35 (Wiener, 2017). SB 375 provides some conceptual underpinnings and data to support these newer laws. But without any direct tie to local decision-making, SB 375 as it currently stands will not by itself solve California’s land use and transportation challenges.

Why Airports Lack Incentive To Support Transit: The LAX-Rail History

In my 2014 book Railtown, I covered the sad saga of Los Angeles rail transit planners’ failed attempt to bring rail to LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). While local conspiracy theorists argued that the taxi industry had scuttled the plan, the reality was that the region was running out of money for rail anyway and lacked consensus on the best route to the airport.

But transit officials at the time also cited resistance from airport officials, as I described in the book:

Many local leaders blamed the airport for the impasse, arguing that airport leaders should have been willing to contribute funds for the extension. “If [the airport] had used passenger facility funds to meet the line, we would have gone there and made it happen,” said [transportation commissioner Jacki] Bacharach. “But we never got help from the airport.”  According to Ruth Galanter, who represented the area at the Los Angeles City Council, airport officials cited a federal law that prevented airport revenues from funding anything other than airport improvements. “The airlines said, ‘No way. The people using the Green Line have nothing to do with the airport, so you can’t take this money.’ If Bradley had been around for another ten years, he probably could have worked out a compromise.”

I thought of that history when I saw today’s news in the San Francisco Chronicle that airports across the country are losing money from lost fee revenue with the advent of Uber and Lyft:

Travelers’ changing habits, in fact, have begun to shake the airports’ financial underpinnings. Fewer people are parking cars at airports, using taxis or renting cars, according to a recent report from the National Academies Press.

Those trends are hurting airports, which depend on fees from parking lots, rental-car companies and taxis as their biggest source of revenue other than the fees paid by the airlines. The money they collect from ride-hailing services does not compensate for the lower revenues from the other sources.

While LAX officials denied trying to shoot down a rail connection in the 1990s, this article makes it clear that rail transit connections are not exactly in their financial interest.

In the end, LAX is about to get a rail connection from the under-construction Crenshaw Line, which will connect to a parking lot nearby and an eventual people mover around the airport. But it comes a generation after a failed effort in the early 1990s, with the airport’s economic interest likely an important factor.

“Gravity Trains” As Energy Storage

With more solar and wind power on the grid, we’ll need lots of energy storage to soak up any surplus power for use during windless nights or cloudy days. Batteries are getting a lot of attention, but “gravity trains” may be an option as well. profiled a company I’ve discussed before called Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES):

The ARES system is basically a series of heavy concrete blocks on a railway. The excess power from the grid pushes those blocks up an incline. When demand puts a strain on the grid, these blocks are released and go back down the incline. Through the magic of regenerative braking, that kinetic energy gets converted into an extra jolt of electrical current for the grid.

Each of the trains weighs about 300 tons, and they work best on an incline grade of 7.2%. As each train moves down the incline, they pump about 50MW of power into the grid.

The obvious limitations are the need for space and inclines. But it could be a good solution for some of the hilly or mountainous regions in western states like California. I’m glad to see the company is still moving forward with its technology, as we’ll need all sort of energy innovation to solve the storage needs.

Meanwhile, you can watch this Bloomberg news segment on the company:

France Taking Lead From U.S. On Climate Science Research — My KCBS Radio Interview

When President Trump announced in June that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, France eagerly stepped into the leadership void. French President Macron responded by offering millions in new grant money for climate science research.

The winners were just announced, including 13 American scientists out of the 18 winners. I spoke to KCBS radio in San Francisco yesterday about the program and what it means for the United States going forward. You can listen to the 4 minute clip here:

Comprehensive State Survey Shows California’s Environmental Quality Act Rarely Impedes New Projects

Big industry loves to demagogue the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires environmental review for major new projects. But a new survey from the State of California shows that the law barely affects most projects where the state is the lead agency.

The study examined all state-led projects over a five-year period, from 2011 to 2016. First, 90% of the state’s projects were already exempt from the law, due to compliance with legislative or regulatory provisions that exempt certain types of projects. Second, a full-blown environmental impact report occurred less than one percent of the time, while litigation was virtually negligible. Here is the summary chart:

These findings are consistent with a 2016 study sponsored by the Rose Foundation, which found similarly low litigation rates (as I noted at the time):

The number of lawsuits filed under CEQA has been surprisingly low, averaging 195 per year throughout California since 2002. Annual filings since 2002 indicate that while the number of petitions has slightly fluctuated from year to year, from 183 in 2002, to 206 in 2015, there is no pattern of overall increased litigation. In fact, litigation year to year does not trend with California’s population growth, at 12.5 percent overall during the same period.
The rate of litigation compared to all projects receiving environmental review under CEQA is also very low, with lawsuits filed for fewer than 1 out of every 100 projects reviewed under
CEQA that were not considered exempt. The estimated rate of litigation for all CEQA projects undergoing environmental review (excluding exemptions) was 0.7 percent for the past three years. This is consistent with earlier studies, and far lower than some press reports about individual projects may imply.

So while big polluters and sprawl developers and their law firm allies have gone to great lengths to demonize the law and the rare litigation that results, the facts just aren’t matching.

It’s still true that CEQA can be a barrier to new development. But based on the data so far, it’s just not a major one.

The Benefits Of Letting Teenagers Sleep In

Anyone who’s been a teenager or knows one has seen it: teenagers like to sleep in, and they need a lot of sleep. Research is now showing that this is a cross-cultural, biological reality for adolescents. And so the benefits are starting to pile up for schools that are accommodating this biological reality by starting later.

Otherwise, as Kyla Wahlstrom of the University of Minnesota writes, we put these teens at risk:

Studies on sleep in general, and on sleep in teens in particular, have revealed the serious negative consequences of lack of adequate sleep. Teens who are sleep-deprived – defined as obtaining less than eight hours per night – are significantly more likely to use cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.

The incidence of depression among teens significantly rises with less than nine hours of sleep. Feelings of sadness and hopelessness increase from 19 percent up to nearly 52 percent in teens who sleep four hours or less per night.

Teen car crashes, the primary cause of death for teenagers, are found to significantly decline when teens obtain more than eight hours of sleep per night.

It’s been very encouraging though to see the impacts on teen health from schools that are starting later in the morning:

Results from schools that switched to a later start time are encouraging. Not only does the teens’ use of drugs, cigarettes and alcohol decline, but their academic performance also improves significantly with later start time.

The Edina (Minnesota) School District superintendent and school board was the first district in the country to make the change. The decision was a result of a recommendation from the Minnesota Medical Association in 1996.

Research showed significant benefits for teens from that school as well as others with later start times.

For example, the crash rate for teens in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2013 dropped by 70 percent in the first year after the district adopted a later high school start.

It’s promising stuff. Hopefully this practice will become the norm across the country.

A Tale Of Two Subway Woes: Los Angeles & San Francisco

San Francisco and Los Angeles are both building subways below their downtown cores. And now both cities’ projects are over-budget and late. As Matier & Ross report in the San Francisco Chronicle:

San Francisco’s already behind-schedule Central Subway won’t be completed until 2021, more than a year later than the city insists the line will be ready, according to a new report by the big dig’s main contractor.

Construction giant Tutor Perini Corp. also says the $1.6 billion project is running tens of millions of dollars over budget.

Adding insult to injury, the former head of the agency that oversaw construction of the Transbay Transit Center, which went horribly over budget, is apparently lobbying the city for more money for Tutor Perini. The delay means the line won’t be able to serve the new Golden State Warriors arena for the first two seasons. For their part, city officials seem to think the contractor is bluffing to get more money. Either way, it’s not a good sign.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the downtown regional connector light rail line is also in trouble, as Laura Nelson reports in the Los Angeles Times. The new opening date is now December 2021, a year later than the agency’s original target date of December 2020. Its $1.75-billion budget is now 28% higher than originally forecast.

Residents in these two major cities are now spending a better part of a decade watching these relatively short rail lines get built, at increasing taxpayer expense. While I’m sympathetic to the challenge of building under old urban environments, I wonder how much of these challenges should have been foreseen. It’s almost a joke at this point that elected officials over-promise on cost and timelines to sell new rail lines at the outset. But it would be nice to see those those promises actually come true for once, especially for transit projects as important as these.

Berkeley Homeowner NIMBYs Face National Blowback

NIMBYs in Berkeley are getting some national attention. The New York Times covered a battle over a Berkeley home that a developer wanted to subdivide into three units. Despite compliance with the zoning code, neighborhood opponents convinced city leaders to reject the project. But a local YIMBY group sued and won to overturn the decision.

The article uses the story to describe the prevalence of single-family zoned neighborhoods around the state:

Neighborhoods in which single-family homes make up 90 percent of the housing stock account for a little over half the land mass in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, according to Issi Romem, BuildZoom’s chief economist. There are similar or higher percentages in virtually every American city, making these neighborhoods an obvious place to tackle the affordable-housing problem.

“Single-family neighborhoods are where the opportunity is, but building there is taboo,” Mr. Romem said. As long as single-family-homeowners are loath to add more housing on their blocks, he said, the economic logic will always be undone by local politics.

The article rightly points out the damage done by laws that enable this kind of exclusionary neighborhood, particularly to housing affordability and the environment.

Adding fuel to the fire, former Berkeley planning commissioner Zelda Brownstein published a controversial piece in Dissent Magazine arguing that there is no credible evidence to support the claim that local opposition prevents housing from getting built, despite numerous studies, surveys and observable evidence around California to the contrary. She writes:

Developers build housing, and what they decide to build—and when and whether they decide to build it at all—depend on factors that over which local governments have no control: the availability of credit, the cost of labor and materials, the cost of land, the current stage of the building cycle, perceived demand, and above all, the anticipated return on investment.

Some of the same YIMBYs that fought the Berkeley housing decision quickly returned fire, noting Ms. Brownstein’s conflict of interest as a landlord who benefits financially from the lack of new housing:

Personally, I’m not a fan of these kind of personal attacks, as Brownstein’s arguments should be evaluated on their own merits, not based on who is making them.

But as California residents grow increasingly frustrated with NIMBY activity stifling new homes, these kinds of debates and news coverage will only increase.

Bus-Only Solution To L.A.’s Transit Ridership Problems Ignores Context & Other Options

Some longtime rail opponents made an appearance in the Los Angeles Times op-ed pages last month, with a bus-only solution to recent transit ridership woes. James Moore from USC teamed up with former Southern California Rapid Transit District chief financial officer Tom Rubin to blame falling transit ridership on L.A. Metro’s lack of investment in buses compared to rail.

Moore and Rubin went to lengths to extol the benefits of the now-expired 1990s consent decree to settle a lawsuit against L.A. Metro by the Bus Riders Union. The settlement decree forced L.A. Metro to privilege spending on buses over rail:

The settlement allowed Metro to build all the rail it could afford, so long as specific bus service improvements were made too. Those improvements included reducing fares, increasing service on existing lines, establishing new lines, replacing old buses and keeping the fleet clean. Lo and behold, while the decree was in force L.A.’s transit ridership rose by 36%. When Metro was no longer bound by the settlement, it refocused its efforts almost exclusively on new rail projects. The quality of bus service began declining in almost every way measurable, and overall ridership again fell.

Moore and Rubin’s 2017 op-ed hasn’t actually changed much since their 2008 version in the same paper. But their claim that the consent decree boosted L.A.’s transit ridership by 36% sounds different from the 2008 op-ed. In that original piece, they acknowledged that the ridership boost during the consent decree also included rail riders, given the new lines being unveiled at the same time:

Over the next 11 years, [L.A. Metro] added buses, started new lines and held fares in check to improve the country’s most overcrowded bus system. As a result, users of public transit gradually started to increase again. Yes, some chose the Blue, Red, Green and new Gold rail lines, but the majority of riders returned to buses.

“Gradually started to increase” in 2008 doesn’t seem to match their 20017 claim of a 36% boost. Meanwhile, Bus Riders Union estimates of ridership during the consent decree years was evidently 1% per year increase, per the LA Weekly in a 2005 article.  That’s not much to get excited about, given the scale of the ridership problem and the amount of money L.A. Metro spent on consent decree compliance.

I certainly agree that lower bus fares can mean more ridership, and I support improved bus service. But the idea that the consent decree was a big ridership win seems like revisionist history. More importantly, Moore and Rubin’s arguments fail to put the L.A. transit ridership problem into the national context it deserves. With low gas prices and a booming economy, plus the impact of Uber and Lyft, transit ridership decreases are happening everywhere. This isn’t just about L.A. Metro’s decision to build a lot of rail.

A true response to the challenge involves multiple solutions, of which better bus service and lower fares are just one arrow in the quiver. More dense development around transit and congestion pricing also need to be in the mix, for example. Focusing only on ideologically motivated solutions, introduced regardless of context, is less likely to be an effective approach to tackling the problem.

Republican Tax Bill Would Devastate Renewables & Affordable Housing

UPDATE: Initial reports that the electric vehicle tax credit was killed in the Senate version may have been inaccurate. The text of the amendment contained some obscure language that actually indicates that it was not adopted in the ultimate bill.

Donald Trump’s electoral college win a year ago certainly promised a lot of setbacks to the environmental movement. His administration’s attempts to roll back environmental protections, under-staffing of key agencies enforcing our environmental laws, as well as efforts to prop up dirty energy industries have all taken their toll this year.

However, until the tax bill passed the Senate this week, much of that damage was either relatively limited in scope or thwarted by the courts. But the new tax legislation now passed by both houses of Congress, and still in need of reconciliation and a further vote, could dramatically undercut a number of key environmental measures in ways we haven’t yet seen from this administration.

Originally, there was some hope that Republicans in the U.S. Senate would weaken some of the draconian environmental measures in the original House tax bill. But that was largely dashed by the late Friday night, partisan vote in the U.S. Senate. First, the bill targets clean technology while promoting dirty energy:

  1. The renewable energy tax credits for wind and solar are severely undercut by an obscure provision in the bill called Base Erosion and Anti-abuse Tax (BEAT), as Greentech Media reports. While analysts are still reviewing the provisions to discern the likely impact, initial assessments are that this bill language could greatly hurt the industry by decreasing the value of the credits.
  2. Similarly, the reinstatement of the alternative minimum tax for corporations, which was not in the House bill, also hurts the market for renewable tax credits, if not devastates it. By inserting this provision at the very last minute, Senate leaders attempted to offset some of the other tax cuts and projected deficits by ensuring corporations pay a minimum tax. The problem is that it renders many tax credits worthless, as businesses will no longer need them. Particularly hurt are wind energy projects, which rely on the production tax credit, as well as solar projects that rely on the investment tax credit.
  3. As a dirty cherry on top, the Senate bill opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

On housing, the tax bill has the potential to devastate affordable housing. Affordable projects often rely on tax credits for financing. As Novogradac & Company writes, the BEAT provision will dampen corporate investors from claiming tax credits like the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC), new markets tax credit (NMTC), and historic tax credit (HTC), all used to fund affordable and other infill projects. Other changes in the bill promise further dampening of financing for affordable housing.

The only good news for environmental and housing advocates is that there is still a chance to make changes in the bill through the conference committee. And that the provisions here can be rescinded in 2021 with a new congress and president.

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