How and when San Diego will address its regional transportation needs over the next 40 years is once again an open question.
A San Diego County Superior Court judge on Tuesday upheld a lawsuit challenging the San Diego Association of Governments’ comprehensive, 40-year transportation plan.
Judge Timothy Taylor ruled Sandag didn’t adequately address its plan’s effects on global climate change and didn’t comply with new state regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas levels.
Taylor said the transportation plan’s ultimate fate is likely to be decided by a state appellate court, though that’s not set in stone.
The $200 billion plan outlined spending for highways, local roads and public transportation throughout the county. While the plan would spend more on public transit than on any other sources, it pushed those projects to the back of the line.
Environmentalists, affordable housing advocates and others opposed the plan because they said deferring transit spending would increase greenhouse gas levels and further cement the region’s auto-centric approach, decreasing the likelihood that transit projects would be pursued in the first place after widened highways decreased congestion and made driving more appealing.
Sandag’s plan has become a statewide sticking point because it’s the first regional transportation plan put forward since a 2008 law required agencies to reduce greenhouse gasses, making this the first court interpretation of the regulatory burden facing regional planning groups.
Tuesday’s ruling, which mirrored a tentative ruling issued before Thanksgiving, said Sandag’s plan failed to clearly define its effects on greenhouse gasses, how to mitigate them and didn’t adequately explain decisions within the plan.
Specifically, Sandag’s environmental review didn’t conform to an executive order issued by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005.
Sandag’s plan allows greenhouse gasses to increase from 2020 through 2050, even though state requirements, based on the executive order, seek to reduce those levels during the same period.
The judge also took issue with the plan’s reliance on individual jurisdictions to deal with the negative environmental effects of each specific project, rather than holding itself accountable for doing so within the overall plan.
The court said the plan’s environmental review didn’t meet California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) standards, which require an environmental review for any project that may affect the environment.
Opposition to the plan materialized long before it was finalized, primarily because of its lack of urgency on public transit.
The lawsuit, initially filed by the Cleveland National Forest Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity but later joined by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, was primarily focused on the inadequacy of the environmental review.
Sandag’s plan and the resulting lawsuit represented the first time a regional planning group put forward a comprehensive transportation schedule since a 2008 law requiring all such documents demonstrate a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Planning groups all over California were eyeing this case for guidance on complying with the new state requirements.
Sandag’s plan also included for the first time something called a “sustainable communities strategy,” intended to outline greenhouse gas reduction methods by encouraging dense, transit-oriented neighborhoods.
“What’s really important is this case makes clear that public agencies have to comply with laws to cut air pollution and address climate disruption,” said Rachel Hooper, who represented opponents of the plan. “The fact that Sandag was the first to prepare a sustainable communities strategy did not give them a free pass from environmental disclosure laws. They are the leader in the region and it’s their responsibility to uphold these laws.”
There’s still a chance the case could be settled without the appellate court.
Sandag’s opponents will propose a final judgment, including potential remedies for the plan, for the court’s consideration.
If Sandag is willing to negotiate, it could keep the case from proceeding to the appeals process.
Opponents of the plan outlined some of the potential remedies in court last week, including expediting transit spending, adopting basic mitigation measures like transit-oriented development or getting Sandag’s member agencies to adopt climate action plans.
If the parties can’t reach a compromise, the court would provide its own final judgment after the plan’s opponents offer their proposal.
Sandag would then have 90 days to appeal the court’s decision.
Sandag spokeswoman Colleen Windsor said the organization’s board is meeting Friday to discuss its next steps.
“We still support our (regional transportation plan) and we still believe our (environmental impact review) complies with CEQA,” she said.
I’m Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0529 and follow me on Twitter
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