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By Miriam Raftery

November 24, 2017 (San Diego) – California’s Court of Appeals issued a decision on November 16 that upheld part, but not all, of a 2014 lower court decision which found that the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, failed to reduce climate pollution and assess public health risks of a 2011 regional transportation plan that invested heavily up front in freeways, instead of putting emphasis on public transit.

The issue is complex, and both sides are claiming a partial win.

In July 2017, California’s Supreme Court ruled that SANDAG’s assessment of the transportation plan’s long-term climate impacts was lawful at the time.  Three environmental groups that had challenged the plan asked the Court of Appeal to reissue its earlier decision in order to incorporate the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The Nov. 16 decision “emphasizes that planning agencies like SANDAG must now do more to consider both climate science and state policy goals,” states a press release issued by the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the suit challenging SANDAG’s actions, along with Cleveland National Forest Foundation (CNFF) and the Sierra Club.

Rachel Hooper, an attorney with Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger who represented Sierra Club and CNFF, says the Court of Appeals published decision will “go a long way in ensuring that regional planning agencies take steps to limit air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions to the extent feasible.”

Kevin Bundy, senior attorney with Center for Biological Diversity, calls the ruling “a stark warning that California transportation planners must consider the huge climate threats of sprawl development and shortchanging public transit.”

The revised ruling emphasizes that SANDAG and other agencies must evaluate long-term projects for consistency with climate pollution reductions that scientists and California policy makers have found necessary to address climate impacts.  The court found that SANDAG failed to consider alternatives to help reduce driving and also used incomplete and inaccurate data to assess effects on agricultural lands.

SANDAG, in a statement issued after the Nov. 16 ruling, notes that since the 2014 decision, SANDAG issued a new Regional Plan that incorporated the Regional Transportation Plan of 2015, which is based on a newer, 2015 environmental impact report approved by SANDAG’s board of directors.

“The revised ruling does not affect the current Regional Plan, which has not been legally challenged,” SANDAG’s press release states.  SANDAG updates is long-range planning document outlining transportation investment every four years and is currently in planning stages for the next update in 2019.  An outreach for the 2019 Regional Plan will be held December 4, SANDAG indicates.