MTC Aims To Lower Emissions By 2035

A 15-percent Reduction Will Change Bay Area Transit And Land Use

(July 30, 2010)

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July 30, 2010

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), in a historic vote Wednesday that will help guide the future for more sustainable land use and transportation planning in the Bay Area, recommended a 15 percent per capita target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2035, the most aggressive goal to date among California's metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).

"Bay Area residents should be really excited about the 15 percent target. That's because it's high enough to trigger the transportation and land use changes we need to make the region more livable and affordable, especially as our population grows significantly by 2035," said Marta Lindsey, the communications and development director at TransForm.

Lindsey sent out an alert last week urging people to write emails to the MTC, fearing the commission would adopt a lower target of 10 percent, which its planning committee recommended at a meeting earlier this month.

"It's a realistic target given MTC's modeling and the kinds of investments and policies we already know really move the needle in terms of how much people drive their cars," said Lindsey.

Under the groundbreaking anti-sprawl bill, SB 375, most of the state's 18 MPOs are required to set a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions for passenger vehicles and light trucks by 2020 and 2035. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) recently adopted a set of draft targets for the four largest MPOs (the Bay Area, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego), which represent 80 percent of the state's population. Each MPO will then be required to develop a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) to show how it will meet its target. CARB is expected to adopt final targets in September.

The recommended target for the MTC was between 3-12 percent of 2005 levels by 2035. The commission's 8-4 vote for 15 percent followed a presentation by Executive Director Steve Heminger and testimony from a diverse group of advocates who urged the MTC to adopt the stronger target. The dissenting commissioners -- James Spering, Bill Dodd, Bill Glover and Amy Worth -- represent Contra Costa, Napa and Solano counties.

In his presentation, Heminger told commissioners that combining an aggressive focused growth strategy (which would amount to a 12 percent reduction) with traffic diversion management programs such as telecommuting (a 3 percent reduction) and road pricing (8 percent) could probably bring the Bay Area toward an 18 percent target reduction by 2035. But he acknowledged that the region is less advanced in pursuing "road pricing, employer trip reduction, or 'smart driving' programs," which in many cities and counties are politically unpopular.

"It took us 20 years to get a congestion price on the Bay Bridge, so at that rate, god knows how long it will take to get the rest of the roads priced up," said Heminger. "That's tough politics. It's tough duty. It requires, in many cases, action by the Legislature, the Congress, whereas a lot of these land use strategies can be pursued on your own authority."

Using what the Natural Resources Defense Council has called a flawed model, Heminger calculated that a 25-cent fee per mile driven would be necessary to meet the MTC's 18 percent target. He estimated the fee would generate $14 billion annually, costing the average household about $4,500. The money could be used to fund more transit services and subsidize affordable housing, low-income tax credits and commuter costs.

Amanda Eaken of NRDC, who served on CARB's Regional Targets Advisory Committee along with Heminger, said the estimate was "significantly conservative" and that the agency wasn't properly calculating the impact of the costs of driving. She said such a fee, when considering that trip lengths have been repeatedly demonstrated to change with higher costs, would have a much more significant impact on reducing GHG emissions if the model allowed trip lengths to change. In an email, she explained it further:

Even a layperson can understand that if the model doesn't allow trip length to change as a result of higher cost, something is wrong. The estimate is further conservative because none of the modeled scenarios actually re-invested the $14 billion generated through the fee to estimate the GHG reduction potential of providing higher quality transit and other transportation options.

Eaken cited a figure from Elizabeth Deakin, a planning professor at UC Berkeley, who she said estimated that a 2. 5-cent VMT fee "would get you a four percent reduction. So, extrapolating that out, your 25-cent fee would get a 37 percent reduction. Now that's illustrative and there are certainly issues with that...but there are serious issues with this model."

Still, Eaken, in her blog post on The Switchboard, praised the MTC for its action. "This vote represents a significant improvement over MTC's starting place just a couple of months ago, when their adopted RTP (Regional Transportation Plan) would have increased GHG emissions by 2 percent per capita over 2005 levels."

Her testimony was followed by Cary Knecht of Climate Plan who said that a much more modest fee of four cents would be all that is necessary to achieve the reduction.

One of the most compelling figures was a chart showing the difference in health care cost savings for each of the proposed targets, a point that was hammered home in public testimony by Julie West, the executive director of the Bay Area chapter of the American Lung Association. 

"The difference between a 10 percent target and a 15 percent target is $40 million in health care savings, lost productivity, school absences and premature mortality. So, a strong implementation of SB 375 is a top priority for the public health community, as you can imagine." 

She noted that the Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the Northern California Council of Hospitals, the American Academy of Pediatrics, local health departments and every local medical association had signed a letter of support in favor of the stronger target. "We support a strong implementation of SB 375 to combat the negative outcomes associated with communities designed for cars from asthma, to obesity, to traffic injuries and deaths."

Several speakers testified that the higher target will also benefit and impact low-income communities and communities of color, particularly those who have been moving away from urban centers.

"We think that low-income communities are gravely impacted moving farther and farther away from the cities and it costs more money for them to use the public transportation system and we'd like to see subsidies and some type of protected measures implemented to reduce the economic impact on the low-income communities as they're trying to get to work," said Azibuike Akaba, a policy associate overseeing the public health and equity impacts of SB 375 for the Regional Asthma Management and Prevention program, or RAMP.

Parisa Fatehi of Public Advocates pointed out that her organization, along with 49 signatory organizations, including TransForm, sent a letter to CARB's Chair, Mary Nichols, calling for the agency to consider six steps for a social equity approach to its target setting recommendations that "account for all races and social economic backgrounds." 

"What does that mean? For example, increasing housing and transit affordability, improving what we call the jobs-housing fit, will mean that all workers can live closer to their jobs, vital services and grocery stores and health care, and thereby reduce their vehicle miles traveled," she told the commissioners.

Henry Hilken, the research and planning director for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said much of the hard work implementing SB 375 will involve reaching out to communities to build support for the kind of ambitious land use and pricing changes that will be required to set the Bay Area on a path toward more sustainable communities. 

"We think it's going to be critical, in moving forward in the coming years, to really engage local governments, the public, businesses in a really frank discussion as to what those local land use decisions mean, what pricing decisions mean. Quite honestly, that's probably more important than the specific number that's set for the region."