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Eyes across the state are watching San Diego as it puts the finishing touches on a plan to spend $200 billion on transportation projects over the next 40 years.

And not all like what they see.

This year, a new state law requires the agency to show how its plan to build transit and expand freeways will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks over the next 25 years.

Because San Diego is the first region to have to show how its plan will reduce emissions, the San Diego Association of Governments, the county’s regional planning agency, has faced more public scrutiny and pressure than it usually gets.

Here’s a look at why there’s so much focus on San Diego and what’s being said:

Enter the Attorney General

In a letter last week, state Attorney General Kamala Harris told Sandag officials their plan failed to go far enough to cut greenhouse gases. She said revising the plan would “benefit not only the San Diego Region, but will help to set the standard” for other planning agencies across the state as they prepare to draft their own emissions reduction strategies.

She raised several issues, and was especially concerned that Sandag’s plan doesn’t ensure that greenhouses gas emissions won’t increase again in the long-term.

So what does the AG’s opinion mean?

Harris doesn’t have any regulatory power to stop the plan. She could sue, but didn’t even raise that specter in the letter. Harris said she wanted her office to work with Sandag to improve its plan, and her action could send a signal to other planning agencies around the state as they draft their own plans to reduce greenhouse gases.

The Big Question

As California looks to combat climate change, it’s looking to regional planning agencies like Sandag to be on the front lines of the fight against greenhouse gas emissions. Recent state laws have worked toward reductions by encouraging agencies to promote less sprawling development and transportation networks that include more transit options.

Cars and light-duty trucks are the largest single source of emissions in San Diego, according to a University of San Diego study.

The big question now is whether Sandag’s transportation plan — one that will make major investments to transit but not before accommodating more cars — can chip away at that number.

The state has said Sandag must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent by 2020 and 13 percent by 2035.

The agency plans to achieve those goals through a mix of transit improvements like trolley lines and new bus routes, but also through the expansion of highways to reduce congestion and freeway carpool and express bus lanes to promote ridesharing.

Sandag’s plan exceeds the state’s immediate goal of 7 percent emissions reduction by 2020 and just meets the goal of a 13 percent reduction by 2035. But once the state’s goals go away, Sandag’s plan allows emissions reductions to decrease.

This “implies that future growth will be unavoidably less transportation efficient,” contradicting the goals of the state law, Harris wrote, citing a report by the California Office of Planning and Research.

What Sandag Says

Gary Gallegos, the agency’s executive director, has defended the plan as a good one that meets the region’s long-term transportation needs while satisfying the state requirements to reduce emissions.

It has its supporters. Several groups, including the Automobile Club of Southern California, the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and developers’ groups, supported Sandag’s plan at a California Air Resources Board hearing in Sacramento on Thursday. They said it strikes a fair balance between the need to provide more transit options and the need to build the transportation infrastructure that will support the region’s economy.

“Successful implementation of the [strategy] will result in the region successfully meeting and exceeding reduction goals in 2020 and 2035,” said Matt Adams, vice president of the Building Industry Association of San Diego, a local developers’ group. “This is new territory for all of us and there’s bound to be differences of opinion. But the fact remains that [Sandag’s] analysis is sound, their methodology is clear and their goals are achievable.”

Pushing Transit First

Environmentalists and transit advocates at the same hearing said the agency could do more to meet its goals by building transit first, not highway expansions.

While it will spend more money overall on transit than highways, Sandag prioritizes highway projects earlier on and transit projects later. Groups like Move San Diego and Sustainable San Diego say that building transit first would reduce the need for highway expansions in the future.

This isn’t the first time Sandag has faced criticism for its transportation plan. In 2007, Attorney General Jerry Brown lobbed similar criticisms at an earlier version of the plan, saying Sandag had not sufficiently addressed the impact the plan would have on global warming.

Sandag’s board of directors expects to vote on the plan next month.

Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528.

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Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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