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Op-Ed: The Truth about SB375 and the One Bay Area Plan

One man digs into the language of Senate Bill 375, which mandates cities and counties to create new housing to accommodate job growth, and says he’s found a number of falsehoods.

The stated goal of Senate Bill 375, which was signed into law in 2008, is “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) 15 percent by 2035.” Its premise is that building high density development with an affordable component, close to public transportation, will decrease GHGs and thereby have a positive effect on global warming.

The rationale is as follows: Section 1(a) of SB375 states: “The transportation sector contributes over 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in California. Automobiles and light trucks alone contribute almost 30 percent. The transportation sector is the single largest contributor of greenhouse gases.”

This infers that SB375 will affect 40 percent of all GHG emissions in California. I wondered if that was true.                             

To implement this law there are two basic requirements. That “prior to adopting a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) shall quantify the reduction in GHG emissions projected to be achieved.” [Section 3 (G)] and “...the MPO shall submit a description of the methodology it intends to use to estimate the GHG emissions reduced by its Sustainable Communities Strategy.” [Section 3 (I) (i)]

So I decided to analyze SB375 on its own terms to discover the truth about all this. What I found is that the factual basis of SB375 is faulty at best or a carefully crafted deception at worst. And that ABAG RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Assessment) allocations and SB375 will actually increase GHG emissions in California.

Falsehood #1:

“The transportation sector contributes over 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in California.”

The truth is that the “40 percent” figure is a 2020 projected figure not a real measured number. The actual amount is about 35 percent (Source: CA Air Resources Board: updated Oct. 2010). It seems to me that basing a law on a fabricated guesstimate of GHG emissions to justify the law’s goals is a bit circular, isn’t it?

In any case the real number, 35 percent, is misleading because it includes emissions from airlines, trains and trams, buses, heavy construction equipment, commercial trucking and hauling, shipping, boats, ferries, etc., none of which are affected by or addressed in SB375. 

Falsehood #2:

“Automobiles and light trucks alone contribute almost 30 percent.”

The truth is that If you strip out the vehicles above not affected by SB375, you’re left with 23 percent of GHGs actually contributed by automobiles and light trucks. (Source: CA Air Resources Board: updated Oct. 2010)

Falsehood #3:

“The transportation sector is the single largest contributor of greenhouse gases.”

The truth is that according to California EPA, energy production is the number one GHG producer in the state at 41 percent. Transportation is second at 35 percent. But even that’s not true because the California Air Resources Board statistics err in saying “livestock and animal breeding” is only 3 percent, because that’s just a measure of total GHG tonnage, not global warming impact. Methane gas (the majority of GHGs from livestock) is 35 times more harmful than CO2 in its global warming impact. So “livestock and breeding “ actually dwarfs energy and transportation combined. But not wanting to split hairs I decided to just use the numbers we have so far.

So what are the facts?

SB375 and RHNA allocations are based on the concept that we all carry our fair or proportional share. So I looked at the actual GHG emissions data and statistics for Marin County.

The total GHGs for Marin are 2.7 million metric tons per year. With 23 percent of that from cars and light trucks, that equals 621,000 metric tons of GHG per year. (Source: Bay Area Air Quality Management District; Feb 2010 Report: Source Inventory of Bay Area Greenhouse Gas Emissions).

But 23 percent is still misleading as it relates to housing because...

Many of our GHG emissions are not affected by SB375 or housing regardless of where we build it.

These kinds of driving include:

  • Deliveries and pickups by car, truck and van
  • Passenger vans and shuttles to private businesses and public facilities
  • Workman and building contractors transportation
  • Gardeners and home services
  • Utility service vehicles: water, power, sewer
  • City Agencies vehicles: police, fire, public works
  • Health and safety vehicles

This accounts for roughly 40 percent of vehicle use in Marin. That leaves 60 percent of 23 percent or 13.8 percent for personal travel. That equates to 372,600 metric tons GHG per year that might be positively affected by SB375.

But 13.8 percent is still misleading because Marin County has no significant public transportation. According to citydata.com, 65 percent of the personal driving in Marin is driving to work. This is true regardless of where we locate housing because: 

  1. We cannot discriminate in rentals or sales of homes based on where people work or what kind of job they have;
  2. No one can predict where they will have to go to find employment. People will go where the job is 
  3. People don't make the decisions about where they work and where they live for the same reasons: i.e. You go where the best job opportunity is. You live where it's best for your family or lifestyle.

That leaves 35 percent of 13.8 percent or 4.83 percent for other personal driving, which equates to about 30,000 metric tons of GHGs per year that might be positively affected by SB375. 

But 4.83 percent is still misleading because most Marin County driving is not optional. These types of non-optional driving include:

  • Driving to lessons, soccer, schools, friends and social activities.
  • Vacations, driving to the beach or mountains, or a park, etc.
  • Driving to buy large things we cannot carry (paint, hardware, large grocery purchases, plants, clothing, equipment, etc.).
  • People shop price not location (drive to Costco, Target, etc.).
  • People have busy lives and must do multiple things in one trip.
  • Because what you need is not nearby (i.e. You go to the doctor you need, not because he’s next door).

So all in all, only about 10 percent of people, who are not doing any of these things, might be able to change their driving habits due to SB375 / One Bay Area’s scheme for high density housing near the highway. That leaves only 10 percent of 4.83 percent, or 0.48 percent, which equates to 3,000 metric tons of GHGs per year could possibly be saved by SB375. That annual figure is approximately ½ or 1 percent of all of California’s annual GHG output. These are statistically insignificant savings (smaller than 1 percent is considered a rounding error)!

SB375 / One Bay Area Will Increase GHG Emissions

It turns out that SB375 and the One Bay Area Plan will actually produce a dramatic increase in GHG emissions. Let’s do the math.

A typical home produces about 8 tons of GHGs per year. The One Bay Area Preferred Scenario for Marin calls for the construction of 8,150 new homes. That equates to an additional 65,000 metric tons of GHGs per year. 

At a development scale of 20 units per acre, about 400 acres of land developed would be required for new housing. But I chose to use 200 acres assuming that half would be on undeveloped sites and half on redeveloped sites.

The annual carbon sequestration value of one acre of typical Marin undeveloped land (grass with a few trees, not forested land) is about 60 GHGs per year. 

So if we lose 200 acres of land to development that equals more than 12,000 added GHGs. If we then add the more than 65,000 tons of GHGs from the new homes, then subtract the net savings of (-3,000) from SB375, we get a total added GHG per year of 74,000 metric tons per year (77,000 minus 3,000). (Source: EPA greenhouse gas calculator).

But It Gets Worse

Most “affordable” units built in the future to satisfy RHNA allocations will be done using inclusionary zoning. This is true because the projects are generally not financially feasible without 80 percent of the units being sold or rented at expensive market rates. Inclusionary is at best 20 percent of total units built in a project. Using the RHNA allocations in the latest One Bay Area Preferred Scenario, we would have to build about 3 times the number of total affordable units required to achieve the “affordable” component quota using inclusionary development methods. Doing this will increase the total GHGs produced by SB375 by hundreds of thousands of additional metric tons per year.

Solutions?

The problem is that cars and light trucks produce GHG emissions. So why not just fix the problem instead of destroying our communities, and creating unsustainable growth and unwieldy bureaucracies?

We should force vehicle manufacturers to produce more fuel efficient cars, trucks and other transportation right now. How about levying an MPG tax on every new car or truck sold that doesn’t get at least 35 miles per gallon (the newly proposed 2016 CAFE standard) and a tax credit for the purchase of those that exceed it? That would penalize high pollution vehicles but make low emission vehicles cheaper by comparison for consumers, and reward innovators.

SB375 & One Bay Area

SB 375/One Bay Area is without any statistical or scientific basis. Its “top down” housing mandates and compliance demands are unprecedented in California legal history, and remove significant local control of zoning and planning. SB375/One Bay Area is economically destabilizing and financially irresponsible. Housing without jobs equals “unsustainable” development (think: Vallejo, Modesto and Fresno). It’s environmentally destructive. It contradicts the fundamental the laws of supply and demand, free markets, and how cities grow and survive.

I believe that SB375’s legal ambiguities and contradictions make it open to legal challenge as to the enforceability of some of its more onerous provisions.

What is most troubling is that in the end, after all the costs and burdens that SB375 and One Bay Area will impose on our communities, it will not result in providing what we really want: More high quality jobs and more quality, affordable housing choices to those most in need.

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