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Can California’s regional planning incentives work in Illinois?

Graphic by Vision California / Courtesy of NRDC

Vision California, the state's vision for regional planning, showed that by supporting more compact growth, by 2050 California could save the average household $3,100 annually in fuel costs alone.

MPC Research Assistant Nick Bastis contributed to this post.

On March 25, MPC and the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council hosted the second in a series of three roundtables on implementing GO TO 2040, northeastern Illinois’ first-ever comprehensive regional plan. The event highlighted the policies and leadership needed at the regional, state, and federal levels to support the implementation of GO TO 2040 and other comprehensive region plans across the country that are promoting the federal Livability Principles.

Four speakers comprised the panel: Jennifer Henry of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), James Corless of Transportation for America, Robin Snyderman of MPC, and Ylda Capriccioso of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Though they discussed opportunities at the federal level to empower Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and provide financial incentives to advance regional plans – for instance through the next surface transportation funding bill (watch a video message from Corless and learn more at – the conversation kept coming back to the need for state leadership.

California’s vision

Henry provided a powerful example of how a state can play an integral role in advancing regional planning by describing three State of California initiatives: Vision California; AB 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act; and SB 375, California’s Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act.

Vision California is California’s clear vision for regional planning. The program analyzed the environmental, economic, and health costs of California’s current growth patterns and offered alternative scenarios. These scenarios clearly demonstrate the positive benefits the state, its residents and its businesses would realize by adopting better policies that support alternative land use patterns. For example, Vision California showed that by embracing more compact growth, by 2050 California could preserve more land than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, reduce vehicle miles traveled by 4.2 trillion, and save the average household $3,100 annually.  This vision has been used to motivate, inspire and strengthen partnerships across the state; CMAP used a similar technique here when developing the GoTO2040 plan.    

AB 32, which passed in 2006, set regional Green House Gas (GHG) emissions targets and aligned local policy and planning practices with a goal of reducing GHGs to 1990 levels by 2020. SB 375 is supportive legislation for AB 32; it provides incentives to help address vehicle miles traveled, which contribute 28 percent of all GHG emissions in California. SB 375 requires MPOs to add a new Sustainable Communities Strategies element to their Regional Transportation Plans; more importantly, it offers a range of incentives, including $1.5 billion per year in transportation funding, improved environmental review for projects consistent with approved plans, and more flexibility on traffic mitigation requirements. The legislation also synchronized the schedule and criteria for Regional Transportation Plans and Housing Needs Assessments, to better align housing and transportation investments and save regions and communities time and money.

Will it play in Peoria?

California’s approach has gotten a lot of attention, but the question on everyone’s minds at the March 25 roundtable was, could any of this happen in Illinois?

It’s easy to be skeptical given our state’s political and fiscal crises. However, California’s state finances have also been rocky in recent years, and they’ve made progress. What’s more, scarce state resources and spending caps should be a motivating factor for states to invest in coordinate regional plans as a way to more efficiently target resources. (And, as Corless pointed out, stiffer competition for federal funding also ought to motivate states to coordinate.)

Indeed, that’s what’s beginning to happen in Illinois. Robin Snyderman of MPC pointed out several State of Illinois efforts over the past few years that are leading to better coordination:

The State of Illinois’ Comprehensive Housing Plan, originally adopted in 2005, has set and measures annual targets for several statewide housing goals. The plan also coordinates programs and funding across a variety of state departments that have a hand in housing preservation, production, and support for families and individuals in need of assistance. These departments include the Illinois Housing Development Authority, Ill. Dept. of Transportation, Ill Dept. of Human Service, and Ill. Dept. of Natural Resources, among others.

To further this plan, the State recently created a State Linkage Group to support coordination between planning, investments and policies that affect housing, transportation, economic development and environmental preservation. The State Linkage Group presented its recommendations at the beginning of 2011.

While these are important milestones for Illinois, the distinction between Illinois and California is the lack of a broad-based and unifying state vision for growth and incentives to support that vision. Although the fiscal crisis may preclude immediate incentives, we should put in place a vision that will clearly direct and coordinate current and future spending.

Wrapping up the March 25 roundtable, CMAP’s Ylda Capriccioso reiterated that examples such as California’s SB 375 show that sustainability cannot come about by restrictions alone. State and federal incentives are needed, as well as greater coordination among various agencies, to successfully implement GO TO 2040. 

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