Sacramento’s bumpy road to implementing SB 375

SB 375: A strategy to reduce GHGs

California’s landmark sustainable communities law – known by its legislative number SB 375 – is intended to bring transportation, land use, and housing planning into alignment to reduce regional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by specified amounts by 2020 and 2035.  It directs California’s eighteen Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to prepare Sustainable Communities Strategies (SCS) as part of their periodic plans (called Regional Transportation Plans (RTPs)) that identify needed investments in regional transportation infrastructure.  These Sustainable Communities Strategies are intended to identify a regional land use pattern that is consistent both with local general plans and with a more GHG-efficient transportation system capable of meeting the region’s emissions targets.

But the challenge at the heart of SB 375 implementation is this: the law grants the MPOs no authority to control or supervise land use decisions.  Local governments remain free to make land use approvals that are inconsistent with the regional SCS and the general objective of reduced GHG emissions.

Sacramento Case Study

Several groups attended a public meeting to oppose the Cordova Hills project. Source: Larry Blitstein/KCRA

This challenge is already coming to the fore in Sacramento County, where mere months after completion of the region’s RTP/SCS, the Board of Supervisors has approved a huge new subdivision, called Cordova Hills, that is strongly inconsistent with the SCS.  Sited on previously unbuilt land 22 miles southeast of downtown Sacramento, the development could eventually house as many as 25,000 people, with large effects on the region’s traffic congestion, air quality and GHG emissions.  Mike McKeever, the executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), the region’s MPO, has publicly expressed worry that the approval of Cordova Hills could make it impossible for the region to meet its GHG targets under SB 375.

Interestingly, however, the SB 375 process has also created new leverage for other municipalities in the region to fight the Cordova Hills project.  Specifically, by federal law, the RTPs that contain the SCSs must include any transportation project that seeks to use federal funds.  Because the RTP/SCS does not include some of the transportation projects necessary to support the Cordova Hills project, and because those projects likely would need federal funding, it may prove difficult or impossible for those projects to be built if the other municipalities in the region succeed in keeping them out of future versions of the RTP/SCS.  A recent op-ed authored by some other mayors in the region suggests that this is exactly what they will try to do.

This political struggle won’t be resolved anytime soon.  But it will be a fascinating ongoing test of the potential and the limits of SB 375 in steering California’s regions toward a more sustainable future.

This blog post was written by CCSC research partner Dr. William Eisenstein. He is the Executive Director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Resource Efficient Communities.