SB 375 and Special Districts: Transit Districts May Benefit

SB 375 was signed into law on September 30, 2008 with the aim to reduce greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions by channeling the flow of federal transportation monies to transportation projects that reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled (“VMT”). For the most part, analysis of SB 375 has focused on its impact on cities and counties. This article focuses on SB 375 and its impact on special districts, concluding that while most special districts may only be indirectly impacted by the law, transit districts may benefit from the law.

SB 375: The Basics

SB 375 can be viewed as implementing a portion of the Global Warming Solutions Act (“AB 32”), which calls for reducing the state’s GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Specifically, SB 375 links regional transportation planning with land-use planning in order to reduce GHG emissions from automobiles and light trucks by reducing the number of VMT.

SB 375 utilizes the current Metropolitan Planning Organization (“MPO”) system already in place throughout the state. An MPO is a transportation policy-making agency made up of representatives from local government. For many jurisdictions, the local Council of Governments or COG acts as the MPO. MPOs only exist in the more densely populated portions of the State, so rural areas without an MPO are not subject to requirements of SB 375. The purpose of an MPO is to ensure that expenditures of federal transportation funds are distributed to local agencies based on a continuing, cooperative and comprehensive planning process. SB 375 requires that the California Air Resources Board (“CARB”) assign a GHG reduction target to each MPO in the state for the years 2020 and 2035. See Cal. Gov’t Code § 65080 et seq.

Upon adoption of the final targets (by September 30, 2010), each MPO is then required to meet its emission reduction target by developing a Sustainable Communities Strategy (“SCS”) for its region and a regional growth plan designed to reduce VMT. SB 375 requires the SCS be a part of the Regional Transportation Plan (“RTP”). MPOs are currently required to prepare an RTP, which is a region-wide transportation document required to meet federal and state requirements for transportation funding. An RTP establishes priorities for receipt of federal funding by local agencies; therefore, the RTP must be internally consistent. When SB 375 is fully implemented, all local agency transportation projects should theoretically be consistent with the SCS in order to receive federal funding. Thus, SB 375, if aggressively implemented, could deny local agencies federal transportation monies in the event that a transportation project is inconsistent with the regional SCS.

Further, local agencies pursuing transportation projects complying with the SCS prepared for their region may want to construct “transit priority projects” (“TPPs”), which are sufficiently dense and close to transit. The chief criteria a project must satisfy in order to be a TPP are: (1) at least half the square footage must be residential use; (2) floor area ratio (“FAR”) no less than 0.75; (3) at least 20 units per acre; and (4) within a half-mile of a major transit stop or a high quality transit corridor, which can include a bus line with peak headways of no more than 15 minutes. Under SB 375, there is a potential advantage for a project deemed a TPP, in that, a TPP may be approved with reduced requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act if the TPP is consistent with the regional SCS, and if it satisfies other necessary conditions (e.g., no disturbing wetlands or the habitat of an endangered species).

SB 375 and Special Districts

For the most part, SB 375 does not address special districts. The law only refers to special districts once in passing, and for the most part, special districts will only be affected by SB 375 to the extent that the land use agencies (i.e., cities and counties) rezone areas, etc., in order to comply with provisions within SB 375. Transit districts, however, are an exception.

Transit Districts: The San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District

On October 1, 2008, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (“BART”) released a press release on SB 375. The press release noted that “BART Board Member Tom Radulovich joined Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at the news conference in Sacramento where the Governor announced that he signed into law Senate Bill 375 (SB 375),” and that “The new law fights global warming by providing the guidelines for California cities to curb urban sprawl and build communities around transit stations like BART.” Further, Radulovich provided the following:

The most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emission is to get people out of their cars. That’s because transportation accounts for half of the Bay Area’s greenhouse gas problem. Studies show that people who live in transit villages drive 50 percent less than those who live farther out. Transit villages allow people to live, work, shop and play near transit – thus reducing their reliance on their cars and preventing them from being stuck in traffic burning expensive gas that pollutes our air. As the director who first urged BART to support SB 375, I am glad to see the Governor sign it.

BART, Governor signs landmark legislation cutting congestion and air pollution, helping BART (Oct 1, 2008)

Consequently, because transit villages (potentially TPPs) are encouraged by SB 375, BART ridership should increase as SB 375 is implemented.

Moreover, BART will also benefit relative to some other local agencies as the Bay Area’s MPO, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (“MTC”), moves money toward public transit in an effort to reduce VMT. Indeed, in its Transportation 2035 Plan (adopted April 22, 2009), the MTC provides that “[a]lmost two-thirds of plan expenditures are spent on public transit . . . in an effort to reduce vehicle miles traveled, congestion on Bay Area freeways, and greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions.”

In conclusion, as can be seen in considering the example of BART, transit districts should benefit from the implementation of SB 375.

Posted with permission of the California Special Districts Association from California Special District magazine, Volume 4, Issue 5.