As my Legal Planet colleague Rick Frank blogged, the California Supreme Court on Wednesday granted review of San Diego’s really bad regional transportation plan. I detail the history here, but basically San Diego’s regional transportation agency delivered a plan in 2011 that was supposed to comply with SB 375 (Steinberg, 2008), a landmark law linking transportation spending with long-term greenhouse gas emission reductions.
Instead, San Diego’s agency issued a plan that projected reductions in vehicle miles traveled only in the short run, via accounting gimmicks like more telecommuting and estimated smoother traffic flows from highway widening. And then the plan actually showed backsliding on emissions going out to 2050.
Petitioners argued successfully at the trial and appellate court level that this backsliding contravened California’s long-term policy on greenhouse gases, specifically Governor Schwarzenegger’s 2005 executive order calling for an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. Notably, the state’s 2006 climate legislation, AB 32, only discussed a 2020 greenhouse gas target.
But will this case already be moot by the time the court decides it? There are two reasons to think so:
First, San Diego is already well into its second transportation plan in the post-SB 375 world, which presumably will be much stronger than its 2011 version. That version was already in process when SB 375 was enacted and was the first out of the gate in California to have to comply with the new law.
Second, the California Legislature is currently debating a series of bills that could solidify California’s long-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. If those goals get legislated, particularly ones out to 2050, then a debate over whether the 2005 executive order is legally enforceable in this instance becomes moot.
Of course, a win for the plan’s opponents will only strengthen the hand of advocates for better, more sustainable transportation and land use planning. It will force SB 375 plans to contemplate real, meaningful changes in land use and transportation decision-making, because these greenhouse gas reductions will have to be permanent and cumulative. And it will bolster efforts by public officials in other contexts to reduce long-term greenhouse gas emissions in order to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, which this case is based on.
So in the end, I hope the court upholds the lower court decision. But I also hope the case becomes moot with legislative action this year.