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Court: Environmental Review for San Diego’s Highway-Happy Plan Inadequate

The California Court of Appeals yesterday confirmed a lower court ruling that the environmental impact report (EIR) for San Diego’s long-range regional transportation plan was inadequate. The EIR, said the court, underplayed the impact of the emissions that would result from its highway-building, sprawl-inducing plan.

SANDAG approved its regional transportation plan in October 2011. It was touted as the first transportation plan in CA to be completed under the auspices of S.B. 375, which mandates regional plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But critics charged that the plan contradicted state climate change policy by focusing on highway expansions, which would only reinforce regional car dependence and increase emissions. Several groups took it to court, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and the Cleveland National Forest Foundation.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris later joined the suit. In 2012 a California Superior Court judge agreed with the plaintiffs, declaring that the EIR failed to acknowledge how the business-as-usual plan will increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The appellate decision says there are other problems with the environmental review. For example, highway expansions will increase pollution in nearby neighborhoods, but the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) “never connected the dots between that pollution and its public health impacts,” said Kevin Bundy, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

According to projections in the plan, emissions from land use and transportation would decrease until 2020, exceeding the targets set by S.B. 375. But after 2020, emissions would rise again, intersecting with the S.B. 375 targets somewhere around 2030.

“They acknowledged that in their environmental review,” said Bundy, “but what they didn’t acknowledge was that under state climate policy, and according to the best climate science, emissions have to go way down by 2050 — and stay down.”

Read more…

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Speaking With Steven Cliff, Caltrans’ New Sustainability Director

cliff

Steven Cliff, Caltrans’ first Assistant Director of Sustainability. Photo: Caltrans

As part of its ongoing work to expand its focus beyond just highways, California’s Department of Transportation, better known as Caltrans, recently created a new position — the Assistant Director of Sustainability. Steven Cliff, the new hire, will oversee the integration of one of the department’s newest goals: “Sustainability, Livability, and Economy.”

Cliff comes from the California Air Resources Board, where he helped develop ways to implement AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, and helped develop the cap-and-trade program. He has a background in global climate science and air quality research at the University of California, Davis, where he held a research faculty position before taking on policy work at the ARB.

Changes at Caltrans

Caltrans’ sustainability goal is part of the department’s newly formulated mission and vision statements. Those statements resulted from months of intensive work in response to outside pressure on the department to face the fact that its car-focused, highway-loving, bureaucratic ways were not serving Californians.

The pressure came from the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), the new-ish agency with oversight over Caltrans and several other agencies, including the Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol, that before 2013 answered only to the governor.

One of CalSTA’s first actions was to commission an outside study on the state of affairs at Caltrans.

The resulting report, from the State Smart Transportation Initiative [PDF], ripped into Caltrans, calling it rigid, out of step, and overly risk-averse. The report led to several legislative hearings last year, and led to Caltrans’ endorsement of the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide as an alternative to the department’s own hidebound guidelines, which squelched safer and innovative street designs — especially bicycle infrastructure.

Caltrans dumped its old mission statement, “Improve mobility across California,” for a new one: “Provide a safe, sustainable, integrated and efficient transportation system to enhance California’s economy and livability.”

In the process it also came up with a new vision statement and formulated ten new goals to help achieve that vision. The newest one, “Sustainability, Livability, and Economy,” Caltrans explains as: “[Making] long-lasting, smart mobility decisions that improve the environment, support a vibrant economy, and build communities, not sprawl” (emphasis added).

Cliff, the new Assistant Director for Sustainability, has the job of leading up the effort to develop the sustainability goal, create objectives for it, and formulate performance measures to evaluate how well those objectives are achieved. When the work is finished, it will help inform the department’s five-year strategic plan, due next spring.

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No, Sacramento is NOT Seriously Considering a Bicycle License Law

A sign near the California State Capitol directs bicyclists to ride on the sidewalk, a sight which may remain common until Sacramento’s streets are made safer for bicycling. Photo: Melanie Curry

After a woman was hit by a bicyclist riding on a Sacramento sidewalk, she threatened the city with a lawsuit, and her attorney is pushing the city to pass one of the most restrictive bicycle licensing laws in the country.

Last Thursday, an attorney for Sacramento Bee writer Hilary Abramson submitted a proposal for an ordinance that would outlaw riding on sidewalks to the City Council’s Law and Legislative Committee.

But the proposal went beyond just bikes on sidewalks. It would also have required bicycle riders to buy a city-issued license for $10, take an unspecified test, and register their bikes with the city.

Local station KCRA’s first over-excited response to the story was that the committee now had to decide “whether to take this proposed ordinance to the city council.” But the bike regulation idea got no traction at the meeting, and discussion among committee members focused on the original goal of the meeting, which was to clarify the city’s rules on sidewalk riding.

Randi Knott of the City Manager’s office, introducing the item for discussion, said that the city’s top goal in updating its bicycle ordinance is to encourage the current growth in cycling in the city.

That, several speakers pointed out, is a goal that would not be met if the city imposed a ban on sidewalk riding. Jim Brown of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates (SABA) pointed out that unsafe conditions on Sacramento’s street network often make bicyclists feel that riding on the sidewalk is their only safe alternative.

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Replacing LOS: Experts Debate How CA Should Measure Transpo Impacts

California is shaping a new transportation planning metric to foster transit-oriented development, such as this proposed affordable housing project at Los Angeles’ Soto Gold Line Station in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. Image: L.A. Metro

California planning experts continue to debate how to most effectively measure transportation impacts in a way that will foster smarter growth, after the state abandoned the car-centric metric known as Level of Service (LOS).

California is looking to reduce its “vehicle miles traveled” by encouraging infill development near transit, but the devil is in the details. Image: Federal Highway Administration

The acronym-laden process of measuring transportation under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) may be complex and wonky, but it’s certainly important. In creating a replacement for LOS, the CA Office and Planning and Research (OPR) will shape the future of development in California for many years to come.

SB 743, passed last year, mandated that the state create a replacement metric for LOS to measure the transportation impacts of developments under CEQA. The Office of Planning and Research has proposed a metric called Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), which would measure the amount of driving developments would generate, instead of focusing solely on minimizing delays for drivers.

OPR has made several other suggestions in their proposed guidelines, and are seeking public input to help them refine the changes. Specifically, they are asking for help on the following questions:

  1. Under the proposed guidelines, any project built within a half mile of transit with frequent service (running at least every 15 minutes) would be deemed to have no significant impact on travel, and wouldn’t have to undergo a VMT review. Is this an appropriate rule? Are there other factors that should be considered?
  2. What amount of vehicle miles generated by a development should be considered significant, and thus require an environmental impact report (EIR)? Who should decide what those levels are?
  3. What kinds of strategies should be used to mitigate increases in vehicle miles generated by a project?

Two expert panels were held this week to address these questions. A panel including planners, engineers, attorneys, consultants, and an infill developer came together at a Sacramento forum to discuss the proposed guidelines at the first event. The next evening, the University of San Francisco’s Environmental Law Society invited several attorneys with opposing viewpoints to discuss CEQA, state climate change laws, and the proposed guidelines.

Although there has been some public sparring over the change, and not all of the feedback OPR has received on its proposed guidelines has been positive, there was more agreement than not at both panel discussions. For example, panelists agreed that Level of Service is not the right way to measure the environmental effects of a project.

OPR staff maintains that eliminating Level of Service would make it simpler and cheaper to develop infill projects, which can help the state meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals by reducing driving and encouraging transit, walking, and bicycling. A large part of that cost savings would come from eliminating the need for an environmental impact report.

Michael Schwartz, senior planner at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and a participant in the university panel, said LOS was “the only reason [San Francisco] had to complete an environmental impact report for the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project.”

“By no other measure would the project have impacted the environment negatively,” he said. “Without LOS, we would have saved millions of dollars and several years of delay.”

But the details of how to apply the new measure still need to be worked out.

Read more…

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A Look at Election Results on CA Transportation Ballot Measures

The elections are over, we can take the signs down now. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

Below are the results from local voter registrars after Tuesday’s election. Vote-by-mail ballots are still being counted, and with the low voter turnout (29.9 percent statewide), this means in some places a third or more of the ballots have not yet been counted. For some measures, this means the tide could yet turn, which is why these are only “semi-official” results.

  • Alameda County: Measure BB: PASSED. The Alameda County Transportation Commission has declared this a winner, with almost 70 percent of the vote (it needed 66.67 percent to pass). The last time this measure was on the ballot, two years ago, it failed by less than half of one percent. That time, it started below the 2/3 threshold and climbed towards it as the vote count came in, but never quite reached high enough. This time, the vote count started above the threshold and is staying there. Although vote-by-mail ballots—nearly half the total ballots cast in Alameda County–are still being counted, supporters are calling it a victory. Measure BB will increase the existing sales tax by ½ cent to fund a panoply of transportation infrastructure measures, including the crazy uncontrolled intersection at Gilman and Highway 80, where the long-studied solution of a double roundabout now has funding.
  • Berkeley, Alameda County: Measure F: PASSED (74.9 percent of the vote, with 66.67 percent needed). This measure would create a parcel tax to fund parks.
  • Measure R: FAILED with a healthy 73.87 percent of the vote so far. R would have rewritten the city’s Downtown Plan, changed some requirements for taller buildings, increased parking requirements, created a downtown historic district, and required a popular vote to approve some developments.
  • Placerville, El Dorado County: Measure K: PASSED. The measure only needed a majority vote; “semi-official” results are 58.2 percent of the vote. It prohibits the city from constructing any roundabout or traffic circle without first submitting it to a popular vote. Pity Placerville, and its transportation planners, who now have an uphill battle to fix the town’s seriously constrained intersections.
  • In addition, three measures in El Dorado county that would have prevented development, rezoned much of the county from “Community Region” to “Rural,” and extend slow-growth restrictions  that would have changed all failed, as did a parcel tax for road improvements in Cameron Estates Community Services District (it needed 2/3 of the vote and so far has only 59.67 percent).

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CA Voters Vote on a Swath of Transportation Measures Today

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Supporters of Alameda County’s Measure BB, including labor and youth leaders, gathered recently in Oakland, California. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

While you’re standing in line waiting for your turn to vote, be glad that you don’t have to weigh in on every fiscal measure on the ballot.

According to the California Taxpayer’s Association, Californians will vote today on over 200 measures that propose to raise money via bonds or taxes for a variety of services. That includes 113 school bond measures, with 14 in the city of Los Angeles alone. It also includes a number of bonds and sales tax measures that would be used for transportation–mostly repairing of potholes, but some transit funding as well.

There are also a number of propositions that ask voters to weigh in on planning issues, from building heights and parking requirements to roundabouts.

Below is a subjective list, by county, of some of the local transportation and land-use tax and planning proposals on today’s ballot. Note that all of the fiscal measures must pass by a 2/3 majority. Read more…

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CA Environmental Groups Grade Legislators

The California League of Conservation Voters scorecard is available here.

It’s scorecard season in California. Advocacy groups are giving grades to legislators based on how they voted on bills in the last year’s sessions, and releasing the scores just in time to influence next week’s election.

The California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV) and the Sierra Club both scored legislators according to how they voted on environmental issues, some of them germane to transportation.

The Sierra Club’s scorecard headline is: 2014: Environmental Power Unifies and Wins.

The CLCV added an additional score this year, dinging fifteen Assemblymembers who signed a letter to the California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols begging her to postpone the application of cap-and-trade to fuels in January.

“Considering the severity and scope of the assault on AB 32, CLCV takes the historic step — the first time in more than forty years of scoring the Legislature – of negatively scoring the signatories to the letters as if they had cast a vote against AB 32 implementation,” said the League in a press release. ”We take this unprecedented action to make it clear to lawmakers that their public support or opposition to state laws that tackle climate change will be part of their permanent record of environmental performance we share with our members, other environmental advocates, and the media.”

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CA’s “Hidden Gas Tax” That Doesn’t Exist

GasTaxMobileBillboardYou may have seen the ads on Facebook, or on one of the roving billboards being pulled by a gasoline-powered truck. They warned darkly of a coming “hidden tax” on fuel that was so hidden nobody in the media was talking about it. You may have wondered what it meant, even as the ads urged you to sign a petition today.

Last week, the oil-industry-backed effort to get people riled up about the “coming hidden gas tax” delivered its petition [PDF] to the California Air Resources Board’s monthly meeting in Diamond Bar.

The California Drivers Alliance gathered a whopping 115,000 signatures, and “dozens” of people showed up to deliver them. It urges the Air Resources Board to delay its “plan to increase fuel prices next year” and charges that the agency has been “unresponsive” and “has not even put this far-reaching policy on its agenda for public discussion.”

Not a word of which is true.

There is no “hidden gas tax” that will suddenly come into being in January. The Air Resources Board has no “plan to increase fuel prices,” nor could it do so. The only change coming is that transportation fuels will become subject to California’s cap-and-trade system.

That means that distributors and transporters of fuels must either 1) comply with requirements to produce no more than a certain amount of greenhouse gas emissions (the “cap” on emissions), or 2) buy enough “pollution credits” from the state to “meet” the cap. This is the “trade” part of the system.

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Four CA Colleges Win 2014 Bicycle Friendly University Awards

UC Santa Cruz won a Silver-level Bicycle Friendly University Award this year from the League of American Bicyclists. Photo: Melanie Curry

Congratulations to several California colleges that won 2014 Bicycle Friendly University (BFU) awards from the League of American Bicyclists. Thirteen California colleges have made the list in the last few years.

New this year are the University of California, Santa Cruz, which won a Silver-level award, and Pomona College and Santa Monica College, which both won Bronze. The University of La Verne also won a renewal of its Silver-level status.

Here are the California colleges that hold standing as Bicycle Friendly Universities:

Platinum
University of California, Davis
Stanford University

Gold
University of California, Santa Barbara

Silver
University of La Verne
University of California, Irvine
University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Santa Cruz
California State University, Long Beach

Bronze
University of San Diego
University of California, Los Angeles
California Institute of Technology
Pomona College
Santa Monica College

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CalBike Looks Back at the Year in Progress for Bicycling in California

Editor’s note: Here’s the California Bicycle Coalition’s (CalBike) post-session wrap-up of its efforts to promote bicycling through state legislation, authored by CalBike’s Ryan Price. It was originally posted on CalBike’s website. We edited it slightly for length.

California is poised to become one of the most bike-innovative states in the nation. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) got a new mission and vision statement this year that is more bicycle friendly, and endorsed progressive street designs. A new State Transportation Agency is shaking up how California traditionally thinks of transportation, and we got to see the first rounds of the Governor’s new “Active Transportation Program.”

While the 2014 legislative session wasn’t ideal in every way, our policymakers took huge steps forward, most importantly with exciting advances toward modern street design. You can find links to exact bill language, fact sheets, and letters to and from lawmakers at the California Bicycle Coalition website here.

We Win Better Bikeways
The California Bicycle Coalition’s main strategy for enabling more people to ride a bike is to get communities to build bicycle-specific infrastructure: networks of paths, protected bike lanes, and calm streets that get people where they need to go, and that are built to be comfortable for anyone ages 8-80. Design rules, outdated laws, and inadequate public investment have been preventing better bikeways for years.

Design rules changed this year. In April, California became the third state to endorse the NACTO Urban Streets Design Guide. “We’re trying to change the mentality of our Department of Transportation,” emphasized Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty. The mere endorsement wasn’t enough, however, as the Caltrans Design Chief made clear a few weeks later, stating flatly that “the standards haven’t changed.”

In September, Caltrans took another step by supporting AB 1193, the Protected Bikeways Act. Authored by Assembly Member Phil Ting and the California Bicycle Coalition’s top priority for the 2014 legislative session, this bill has two primary functions:

  • It removes language from the California Highway Design Manual (guidelines for how to design our streets) that  prohibited engineers and planners from building protected bike lanes — bikeways that have been proven to get more people to ride bikes. AB 1193 also requires Caltrans to set “minimum safety design criteria” for protected bike lanes by January 1, 2016. With new design rules, California has a chance to promote the best designs in the country and become a leader in bikeway design.
  • It allows municipalities to use other guidelines for street design, such as the bike-friendly Urban Bikeway Design Guide produced by the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

In short, Caltrans and our policymakers are responding to the voices of the people calling for a revolution in street design. A vital next step is to advocate for protected bike lanes locally. You can pledge your support here for protected bike lanes so local advocates can find supporters in your area.

More Funding Approved, but Not Much
More funding is essential to building the infrastructure California needs to get more people to ride bikes. It is also key to economic sustainability. Active transportation infrastructure creates more jobs during construction and supports the local economy during its lifetime.

At $129 million, or barely 1 percent of the state’s transportation budget for biking and walking combined, funding for bike infrastructure is paltry at best.

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