Santa Monica City Council will vote on budget cuts next month that could undermine sustainability and mobility goals in which the city has long invested significant effort.
The city’s mobility division and office of sustainability and the environment would see deep cuts under the proposed budget. The departments they operate in — community development and public works — would cut a combined 142 full-time equivalent positions and more than $20 million in spending if City Council approves the budget as proposed, although the council voted earlier this month to dedicate a portion of $2 million in discretionary funding to mobility and sustainability programs.
With two-thirds of Santa Monica’s carbon emissions coming from vehicles, sustainability and transportation policy are inherently linked.
Delaying or canceling programs that get people out of their cars and make Santa Monica safer and more accessible for cyclists and pedestrians, such as the Vision Zero program and GoSaMo, would have corresponding impacts on emissions targets set by the office of sustainability and the environment.
The city launched its branch of Vision Zero, a nationwide effort to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries, in 2016. As part of the initiative, the mobility division has installed infrastructure to regulate traffic at dangerous intersections, installed streetlights that give pedestrians a head start at crosswalks and launched a marketing campaign to get drivers to slow down called “Take the Friendly Road.”
Cynthia Rose, director of Santa Monica Spoke, a pedestrian and cyclist advocacy group, said reducing Vision Zero efforts would jeopardize the safety of people walking and biking on Santa Monica’s streets, particularly children and the elderly.
“If we take away Vision Zero, we are tying the hands of our leaders and staff to maintain safety, especially for our most vulnerable residents,” Rose said.
Rose said employees have put forth measures such as pay cuts and furlough days that could preserve essential services and jobs. The city’s unions began a thirty-day negotiating period with city leadership Monday.
“There have been proposals in not only (the mobility division) but in other departments that retain services and jobs and get to the same budget numbers,” she said. “We believe the city should explore all those options, but from what we understand, that’s not the case — they’re proceeding with a singular approach.”
The city would do away with GoSaMo, a city-funded organization that helps employers and property managers meet city requirements to reduce traffic generated by their businesses or developments. GoSaMo also works with residents, commuters and visitors to plan sustainable trips to and from Santa Monica and around the city.
Although the city would continue to require businesses to reduce their employees’ reliance on car commuting, only large employers would be monitored for compliance. The city would also cut green commuting incentives for its own employees.
GoSaMo executive director Puja Thomas-Patel said she expects a resurgence of traffic above pre-pandemic levels when the economy reopens because many people who used to ride transit will avoid trains or buses given the continued risk of coronavirus.
“We can’t sustain that in Santa Monica — we already have some of the worst congestion in the world,” she said. “We need a coordinated transportation plan for the whole city, and we have that infrastructure in place where we can reach out to all these employers who can then pass it on to individual employees.”
Thomas-Patel said GoSaMo would work with employers to extend telework policies and encourage people to buy personal e-bikes, among other strategies to reduce congestion — as long as City Council doesn’t vote to eliminate the organization.
“If GoSaMo were to go away, it would represent a real loss of support for our business community,” she said. “We’ve asked the city to consider pausing the (organization) instead of eliminating it, because these relationships have taken four years to build and it will be so hard to start over at square one.”
While it wouldn’t be completely eliminated under the proposed plan, the office of sustainability and the environment would have a much smaller staff and focus.
Its goals of water self-sufficiency by 2023, zero waste by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050 would be significantly delayed. Local water infrastructure projects would continue, but water conservation staff would be cut, and efforts to reduce waste and emissions would be dramatically scaled back.
The office would no longer help business owners comply with the city’s single-use plastics ban or assist residents and businesses in pursuing green construction, retrofits or landscaping.
The city also intends to cut funding for community sustainability programs and sustainability education in local schools, including Climate Action Santa Monica and its Youth Climate Corps program, the Sustainable Works Student Program and the Sustainable Quality Awards.
“Educating our kids is critical and we are dead set on finding ways to keep the youth engaged,” said CASM co-chair Laurene Von Klan. “Hopefully we can do a lot of that with community support, funding from the private sector and volunteers.”
She said although Santa Monica will fall behind on climate goals without staff to develop and implement policy, she believes sustainability is embedded in the city’s culture and that residents will continue to reduce their carbon footprints and advocate for pressing climate issues.
“Climate change is a major economic and health destructor that will cause massive human hardship, and we are getting a glimpse of that level of humanitarian crisis right now,” Von Klan said. “If we learn anything from COVID-19, it’s that working together is important.”