Photo by Sam Hodgson

On a Friday evening in early April, the San Diego Association of Governments quietly issued a notice to the media that its years-long legal battle over its flawed 2011 Regional Transportation Plan had concluded. Having lost on all but one point in the lawsuit brought by a handful of environmental and community groups, including the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, the agency leveraged a classic bad-news strategy: Slip the information out just before the weekend and hope that it blows over quickly.

SANDAG would like San Diego County residents to believe this lawsuit was nothing more than a minor disruption, a molehill out of which no mountain should be made. But the significance of the case cannot be so easily discounted.

Voice of San Diego Commentary

First, a quick recap. California enacted new regulations in 2008 aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Regional agencies like SANDAG were directed to develop strategies that integrated land use and transportation planning. With transportation accounting for 39 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, integrating land use planning with transportation is a commonsense approach to reducing the threat of climate change.

In 2011, SANDAG was the first regional agency in the state to develop this new type of plan. The plan was supposed to identify long-term opportunities for bringing down regional greenhouse gas emissions through 2050. But SANDAG’s plan front-loaded investments in freeway expansion over public transit, an approach that meant emissions would spike in the plan’s early decades — and made a mockery of the intention behind the state’s new approach.

The groups that sued were joined by the California attorney general in their challenge to the flawed environmental analysis that underpinned SANDAG’s 2011 plan. The case spent six years making its way through the courts. After a sweeping appellate decision found SANDAG’s analysis lacking, the California Supreme Court dealt the agency a major defeat by refusing to take up most of the issues in the case, which were precedent-setting and apply statewide. The Supreme Court did agree with SANDAG that the agency’s cursory analysis of climate change impacts was legally adequate in 2011.

But the court still warned the agency that it could not ignore the state’s major climate change policy moving forward. In the end, SANDAG was directed to decertify the unlawful environmental impact report tied to its 2011 plan. SANDAG took this action at its April 27 meeting.

There is no doubt that this hard-fought lawsuit has pushed SANDAG to clean up its act, given the stinging defeats it faced in both the superior and appellate courts. Per state law, SANDAG is required to update its regional transportation plan every four years. For its most recent update in 2015, SANDAG took a far more rigorous approach to its environmental analysis, thanks to the court rulings.

Nevertheless, while SANDAG’s more thorough environmental review may keep SANDAG out of court, the agency hasn’t done much to change the culture of prioritizing freeways over mass transit in San Diego County. SANDAG may have become more honest in its greenhouse gas emissions accounting, but it’s still stuck in the bad habit of paying for freeways and roads first, and then throwing remaining funding at public transit and options for bikers and pedestrians.

There is an answer to San Diego County’s combined housing and transportation crisis. Our regional leaders should be front-loading investments in public transit and increasing housing density along transit corridors, as we’re seeing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Building up this type of infrastructure would significantly increase housing options for low-income families and younger adults who are looking to get a foothold in the housing market. It would also allow locals to save significant amounts of money by ditching their cars in favor of a combination of transit, biking, walking and ride-sharing.

With revenue projections from the TransNet sales tax crashing, SANDAG needs to prioritize transit and recognize its inter-relationship with housing now more than ever. To do anything less means that San Diegans will forever be trapped in their cars, and our region will continue to lack the type of diverse housing stock required to meet the needs of current and future residents.

SANDAG is once again in the process of updating is regional transportation plan, with the next plan due in 2019. Let’s hope the agency does a better job of it this time around. It’s well past time for SANDAG to adopt 21st entury thinking and begin planning for the San Diego County of tomorrow, not yesterday.

Jack Shu is president of the board of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation.

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