A smart bill for smart growth in California is on the verge of passage in Legislature

From the Los Angeles Times

George Skelton, Capitol Journal
August 21, 2008
SACRAMENTO -- Shorter commutes. Less sprawl. Cleaner air.

A smart bill for smart growth in California is on the verge of passage in Legislature

Denser housing closer to downtown near transportation hubs.

"Smart growth" it's called.

California policy makers have been yakking about this -- dreaming about it -- for decades. But too many interests have been prospering from dumb growth or have merely been skittish of a future they can't quite visualize.

Enter a tenacious policy wonk with roots in local government: state Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). He has just managed to finesse to the verge of legislative passage a visionary smart growth bill that, by its nature, also fights global warming. It has been a two-year struggle, fought mostly under the media radar while budget chaos crippled the Capitol.

It helps, of course, that Steinberg, 48, has been selected by Democrats to be the next Senate leader. He is carrying serious clout. An official Senate vote is expected today electing Steinberg as president pro tem when the next Legislature convenes in December.

A former city councilman and assemblyman, Steinberg is into substance, not sound bites. And his legislating style is a throwback that succeeds.

"It's a gift anymore to have a legislator who can really dig into a complex issue and be able to mete out a fair deal -- the stuff that people used to do up here that make things work," says Ed Manning, a lobbyist for the building industry, which supports the Steinberg bill after negotiating a compromise.

"When you look at the scope of the bill, it's pretty significant."

The measure (SB 375) links regional planning for housing and transportation with California's new greenhouse gas reduction goal (AB 32) enacted in 2006. The goal is to reduce greenhouse emissions to the 1990 level by 2020. That's a 30% cut from projected emissions.

"One issue everyone has been afraid to touch is land use," Steinberg says. "Everyone understands about using alternative fuel. But land use has been the third rail. AB 32 changed the equation because now land use has to be part of the solution to global warming. You can't meet our goal just with alternative fuels. You have to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled.

"If people are going to drive -- and they are going to drive -- we need to plan in ways to get them out of their cars faster. That means shrinking -- not the amount of housing, not economic development, not growth -- but shrinking the footprint on which that growth occurs."

Steinberg wants it to occur within a smaller circle around downtown.

Basically the bill would work like this: Each metropolitan region would adopt a "sustainable community strategy" to encourage compact development. They'd mesh it with greenhouse emissions targets set by the California Air Resources Board, which is charged with commanding the state's fight against global warming.

And this is the key part: Transportation projects that were part of the community plan would get first dibs on the annual $5 billion in transportation money disbursed by Sacramento. (Projects approved before 2010 would be funded under the current system.)

Another biggie: Residential home-builders would be granted relief from much of the environmental red tape for projects within the community plan.

Local governments also would be required to expedite zoning and allow the builders to actually build.

"We needed to create more certainty," Manning says.

He adds that builders decided they'd rather help plan the strategy for the war on global warming than just wait for the state air board to act unilaterally.

Environmentalists had the same attitude.