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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Suiting Up

The already embattled Santa Cruz County half-cent transportation tax slowly making its way toward the November 2008 ballot may have a new foe. This time the proposed tax increase, which would fund $600 million worth of highway widening, train service and bus routes if it receives two-thirds of the vote, faces the threat of California Senate Bill 375.

The highly controversial bill, currently being debated in the appropriations committee, is the first attempt by state lawmakers to implement the greenhouse gas reduction goals of A.B. 32, the 2006 law requiring California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2020. S.B. 375 proposes to meet these goals by forcing regional planning agencies to favor development projects that result in fewer vehicle miles traveled, and thearefore less CO2 belching out of tailpipes.

The idea, according to proponents, is to encourage high-density, infill development instead of sprawling, low-density development that increases vehicle miles traveled. This would be accomplished by requiring regional transportation plans and countywide general plans to measure the vehicle miles that would be added with any new growth pattern.

However, critics argue that the language in the bill is too vague and could result in excessive litigation. The model for their fears: such far-reaching laws as the California Environmental Quality Act and the Clean Air Act, both of which have resulted in scads of lawsuits targeting projects for reasons that often have little to do with environmental impact and a lot to do with simple opposition to the development in question. In effect, they have served as legal cover for fighting development; critics worry S.B. 375 could be another tool in that box.

With visions of endless litigation dancing in their heads, members of the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) voted on Dec. 20 to join a growing group of transportation planners lobbying for amendments to the bill. Specifically, they seek exemption for transportation projects funded by sales tax increases.

(A sales tax increase would not only help Santa Cruz transportation planners fund their wish list of projects, it would also to make Santa Cruz one of a growing number of "self-help" counties. State and federal governments apparently subscribe to the "Lord helps those who help themselves" model of assistance; they're more likely to give money to counties that show a good-faith effort to chip in a bunch of cash themselves—typically through a sales tax increase or bond. By exempting "self-help"-funded projects from excruciating lawsuits, the RTC hopes to keep its projects rolling along unencumbered.) Bill Higgins works as a legislative representative for the League of California Cities. He's one of the lobbyists Santa Cruz county transit planners will be working with to change the bill.

"I think the problem with S.B. 375 is that the language isn't clear enough, so that a lot of smart people think it means different things," says Higgins. "It gets complex really fast. There are a lot of us negotiating on this bill who believe reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a good thing; we just want to do it right and not in a way that's going to result in a lot of litigation because we don't agree with what the words mean."

If the bill were passed as currently worded, opponents to widening Highway 1 would potentially have an avenue to sue the RTC; they could file a suit arguing the widening project would increase the use of cars and therefore increase vehicle miles traveled. Bob McCleary, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, will also be working with Santa Cruz transit officials to get the bill changed. He fears that any transportation project, even train service or a new bus route, could be targeted by opponents as a "capacity increasing project" and therefore illegal under S.B. 375. "We've actually had our legal counsel look at this and there are many potential opportunities for litigation in the bill," says McCleary. "In the bill they attempt to grandfather in a lot of previously named transit projects that are included in a sales tax measure, but our legal counsel has pointed out there are numerous ambiguities on this matter in the bill."

The controversy over the bill gives a glimpse into the arduous process ahead for California, as legislators attempt to make the warm-and-fuzzy promises of A.B. 32 into cold, hard reality without placing the burden of forcing people to change their planet-warming habits on the relatively low-level county transportation agencies.

"My own analysis is that the GHG emission targets are not able to be achieved without affecting things outside the purview of county transportation planning agencies," notes McCleary. "The biggest impact in changing human behavior comes from things like the recently passed federal energy bill. Also, if gas were taxed so it was $5 a gallon that would change people's behaviors [more than land use decisions], but county transit agencies can't do that."

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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