Arnold’s green U-turn

Schwarzenegger wants environmental rules off the table for projects like Highway 50 expansion effort

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talks about fighting global warming but pushes to loosen environmental rules on big transportation projects.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talks about fighting global warming but pushes to loosen environmental rules on big transportation projects.

By now everybody knows that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is serious about the threat of global warming. As proof, witness the two-day Governors’ Global Climate Summit that Schwarzenegger hosted in Beverly Hills last week. As part of his opening remarks, the governor put the challenge in the starkest terms. The only doubt about global warming is now only “whether the effects will be serious, disastrous or catastrophic,” Schwarzenegger said, and fossil fuels have “become the enemy and now is threatening to destroy all of us.”

So it is perhaps surprising that while Schwarzenegger is pushing for a stronger government response to global warming, he’s simultaneously trying to do an end run around some of California’s most fundamental environmental rules that seek to limit the emission of greenhouse gases.

Citing the need to jump-start the economy, Schwarzenegger wants to exempt several big road projects from the California Environmental Quality Act.

In 2006, California voters approved Proposition 1B, a nearly $20 billion transportation bond. That money has been doled out at a slow but steady pace ever since. But the governor thinks expediting those big infrastructure projects—and pumping about $800 million into the economy sooner rather than later—will help pull the state through its current malaise. And he worries that lengthy environmental review for many of the projects will delay the much-needed stimulus.

“I’m remaining 100 percent committed to protecting California’s environment,” Schwarzenegger explained at a press conference earlier this month. “But during this severe economic crisis, I think we have to be creative here. We must do everything that we can to simulate our economy and to put people back to work.”

But California environmental groups and many of their friends in the Legislature find the governor’s proposal less than stimulating.

“We absolutely agree that we need to get that money flowing. But the governor’s got it wrong on this one,” said Tina Andolina, with the California Planning and Conservation League.

She pointed out that about 40 percent of the greenhouse gases generated in the state come from transportation. Many of the projects on the governor’s list are going to increase the number of miles that people drive in the state and increase air pollution, including the greenhouse gases that Schwarzenegger finds so troubling.

Andolina pointed out that Schwarzenegger has built a reputation as the “green governor” committed to fighting global warming.

“But then his first thought when it comes to balancing the budget is to cut public transit and exempt the transportation projects from CEQA,” she said. “Environmental review makes for a better, wiser investment.”

Schwarzenegger hoped to get legislation exempting the road projects passed during a special session to deal with the state’s budget crisis this week. But it now appears that the plan will have to wait for a new legislative session in December.

At the top of the list is the expansion of Highway 50 in Sacramento County, a controversial project that has been delayed for months by an environmental lawsuit. The project would add two 7-mile-long carpool lanes between Sunrise Boulevard and Watt Avenue. The lanes would be dedicated to cars carrying two or more occupants during peak times.

While more carpooling is generally considered to be a good thing for the environment, opponents of the project say adding more freeway capacity is proven to lead to more driving, more congestion in the future and more air pollution.

Eric Davis, with the Environmental Council of Sacramento, put it this way: A Highway 50 expansion is “like eating more when you are trying to lose weight.”

This is why ECOS, along with several Sacramento neighborhood groups, went to court to stop the project. The groups sued Caltrans in June of 2007, and in the summer of 2008, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley sided with ECOS.

He ordered Caltrans to conduct another environmental review of the project to determine how the project will affect the overall “vehicle miles traveled” in the region and the associated impacts on air quality. The judge also said the agency had not sufficiently considered alternatives to the freeway expansion, including options that focused on mass transit.

Environmental lawsuits aren’t unusual for highway projects. But this one seemed significant because it signaled that state and local governments will now have to “think globally” on just about any large transportation or development project.

Caltrans lawyers argued that the agency didn’t have sufficient methods for measuring the climate-change impact of the project. “Nobody knows how to do it. There’s been no guidance [from the California Air Resources Board],” said Jody Jones, District 3 director for Caltrans, whose territory includes Sacramento. But Judge Frawley ordered the agency to give it its best shot.

But now Frawley’s ruling could be short-circuited by the governor’s stimulus plan.

“We were sort of stunned,” says Davis of ECOS. “It looks like this is basically Caltrans trying to do an end run.”

Not so, says Jones. “We’re not trying to get around our environmental commitments. The administration asked us for a list of projects we could get built in the next six months. This is one of the projects we could.”

“I think there are conflicting public policies at work,” she added. “It’s really for the Legislature to decide what their priority is right now.”

Caltrans estimates that every billion dollars spent on highway construction creates 18,000 jobs. Jones said the Highway 50 project is good for about 3,000 jobs. The project is likely to go forward despite environmental concerns. The question is how soon, and what Caltrans has to do to in order to lessen its environmental damage. Exempting the plan from further environmental review would get it done about 18 months earlier than it would take otherwise.

Road projects create jobs, but public transit might be more stimulating to the economy, dollar for dollar, said Kathryn Phillips, with the group Environmental Defense, which also opposes the governor’s proposal.

“One of the simplest construction jobs you could do would be to add bike lanes and fix sidewalks,” said Phillips. One study by the American Public Transportation Association found that investment in public transportation creates 19 percent more jobs than new road projects. And Environmental Defense is suggesting the governor focus on more environmentally friendly forms of stimulus. The state could decide to fix up schools and run-down buildings in inner-city neighborhoods, for example. Other possibilities include more investment in renewable-energy facilities and environmental restoration.

“We’re not opposed to pouring money into infrastructure,” said Davis. “We just don’t think it should be projects that perpetuate our dependence on the automobile.”