An appellate court on Monday upheld a lawsuit challenging how the San Diego region plans to address future transportation needs in what is largely seen as a test case for planning agencies across the state.
The three-judge panel issued a 2-1 split decision Monday finding the San Diego Association of Governments has not fully complied with state mandates in preparing its environmental impact report, thus shooting down their 40-year transportation plan.
A representative of SANDAG declined to say whether the agency would appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court, saying the agency's board would have to make that decision.
"SANDAG received the ruling Monday and is still evaluating the implications," a statement from SANDAG read. "The SANDAG Board of Directors has not yet been briefed on the ruling. It will be up to the board to assess options and decide how to respond to the court's decision."
Local transportation and planning agencies statewide have their eyes toward this lawsuit for help from the court in determining what the state legislature meant when it enacted a series of laws over the last 10 or 15 years mandating greenhouse gas level reductions.
If the ruling is upheld or the SANDAG chooses not to appeal the ruling, transportation agencies will have to look for alternatives to expanding freeways and easing traffic congestion. Not only that, but the appellate court went further than the local court to say agencies are required to look for greener alternatives to achieving transportation goals.
"What this means is: it's not enough to continue to expand freeways. It's not enough to continue to add lanes. It's not even enough to do sorts of transit projects that rely on buses," said Andrew Keatts, Voice of San Diego reporter. "What this would mean is: You need to fundamentally change the way you go about transportation planning, and even housing development as well."
For example, the $6 billion Caltrans project to widen the I-5 between La Jolla and Oceanside is the type of project that may not meet state mandates, if the appellate ruling is upheld by the California Supreme Court.
"This would say, in no uncertain terms, you need to develop dense communities that are more connected to transit and that you cannot simply allow people to continue driving their cars as their primary mode of transportation, everywhere they go," Keatts said.
Some examples of alternatives would include a trolley line that connects Pacific Beach to El Cajon through Mid-City neighborhoods like Kearny Mesa and Clairemont, Keatts said. And a fast track from downtown through El Cajon Boulevard and North Park out to College Area.
The $200 billion plan allocated more funds for public transit ahead of highways and local roads, but it pushed those projects to the back of the line, Keatts said.
Critics who have sued including the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club say it's not enough to spend billions expanding freeways first and then hypothetically talk about trolley lines 30 years down the road.
Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney representing multiple environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, said SANDAG is basically being sent back to the drawing board and needs to prioritize mass transit, something he says his group has been advocating for all along.
"But there's an arrogance to it. They really just look at us and think that we're a hindrance or a nuisance and that they know better," Gonzalez said. "You know, unfortunately, it took a lower court and now an appeals court to tell them that they are really doing it wrong, and we were right all along."
SANDAG argued that it followed the direction it received from the state for interpretation of various laws regarding greenhouse gas emissions. And today, in a statement, a spokesman for the organization said: "But in some instances that direction was ambiguous," pointing to SANDAG's role as the guinea pig -- the first planning organization to produce an environmental review under the state's new greenhouse gas reduction laws.