How Bad Is San Diego’s Regional Transportation Plan? Report From California Supreme Court Argument Today

The California Supreme Court heard argument today in a case that has big implications for regional transportation planning in California’s cities (Cleveland National Forest Foundation et al. v. San Diego Association of Governments et al. [People, Intervener and Appellant], S223603).  Those transportation investments in turn have big effects on where housing can go.

The case involves San Diego’s horrible regional transportation plan, developed back in 2011 by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).  The plan happened to be the first in the state to have to comply with SB 375, a law linking transportation investments with land use policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  But while the plan reduced short-term greenhouse gas emissions, it projected them to rise out through 2050.  Since SB 375 only required reductions through 2035, SANDAG thought it could get away with slacking in later years, contrary to state policy on long-term (2050) climate goals.

Environmental groups, along with the California Attorney General’s Office, sued SANDAG under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), arguing that San Diego’s agency inadequately considered the plan’s effects on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  SANDAG lost in the trial court and then in the appellate court.

Despite the losses in the lower courts and the “bad facts” for SANDAG, some of the justices today were surprisingly skeptical of the argument that the CEQA environmental review documentation was done poorly.  Justice Goodwin Liu in particular seemed to indicate that he thought the environmental review was up front about the inability of the plan to meet the 2050 goals and that it may have done sufficient work disclosing to the public that impact.

But Janill Richards, arguing for the Attorney General’s office, did a nice job explaining that the document is not just about SANDAG being able to shrug off a bad impact but requiring reasonable (feasible) mitigation, such as alternative fuel charging and local climate action plans.

The other justices were silent, except for Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, who also asked a lot of questions along the lines of Justice Liu.

Given the silence of the other justices and the “bad facts” for SANDAG in this case, I’d still guess that the Supreme Court will affirm the lower courts’ decision and require SANDAG and other agencies to do a better job evaluating impacts out to 2050 in their CEQA documentation.

But it may be a closer decision than I expected, given some of the concerns expressed about burdening agencies with too much oversight from the courts on these long-term issues.