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At this week’s California Transportation Commission meeting, commissioners adopted staff recommendations to fund projects in several programs created by S.B. 1, the state gas tax increase of 2017.
The recommendations, released in November, are for four programs: the Solutions for Congested Corridors Program ($500 million for seven projects out of 21 applications), the Trade Corridor Enhancement Program ($1.35 billion for 28 projects, out of 47 proposals), and the Local Partners Program for “self-help” counties that have passed local transportation taxes – $213 million for 21 projects in the competitive program (out of 62 proposals) and $182 million for 28 projects by formula.
Each program aims to meet specific state goals, as required by S.B. 1. CalSTA Secretary David Kim extolled the projects’ investments in transit, walking, and biking, saying that the current list of projects “clearly demonstrate[s] that we are starting to move way from investing solely in highways. This is a big sea change,” he said, particularly in comparison to the projects adopted in the last funding cycle in 2018.
Others didn’t see it that way. “This list of projects meets current guidelines for these programs,” said commenter Julia Randolph of the Clean Air Coalition. “But they will lead to increased emissions,” and make it harder for the state to meet climate and clean air goals.
“I am encouraged by the good projects here,” said Commissioner Joseph Lyou. “Unfortunately on that overall list, there is not a single one that is a zero-emission project.” Whether that means such projects were not proposed or just didn’t make the list is not clear. “But applicants should know [that at some point] the list will not include projects that are business-as-usual; that if they don’t include what we’ve been asking for, they won’t get funded.”
Long-time Commissioner Bob Alvarado said he agreed – but “we all have to understand that to get the votes for S.B. 1, we had to make promises” to a lot of different interests. He pointed out how difficult it was to pass the gas tax measure, and then subsequently fight off its threatened repeal. “We have to keep those promises we made to voters,” he insisted.
Note that those “promises” were made to lobbyists and special interests, not really to voters. It was the legislature that passed S.B. 1 after many years of failing to raise the gas tax, which had not been bringing in enough revenue to keep up with the maintenance needs of the state transportation system.
Its “Fix-it First” premise was the biggest promise made by proponents of S.B. 1 – not building new highway lane miles.
And since then, policy directives from Governor Newsom, CalSTA Secretary Kim, and Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin have all pushed state agencies to recognize their role in furthering climate change and stop encouraging driving over other modes of travel.
There is still a disconnect between this policy direction and investments, as made clear by the projects approved this week. While there was some money for transit, and some multimodal components were included, many of these projects include adding new highway lanes. New lane miles are frequently framed as necessary by local jurisdictions in the name of safety or as congestion relief.
Even though we know by now that adding lanes does nothing whatsoever to relieve congestion.
Bryn Lindblad of Climate Resolve points out that less than five percent of the total $516 million awarded to L.A. Metro in this round is for transit, with the rest going to highways.
$25M of $516M awarded to @metrolosangeles is for transit — that’s less than 5% — the rest to highways. And that’s from SB1, our newest, supposedly most climate-friendly source of CA transportation funds. A lot about this needs to change! @California_CTChttps://t.co/3xch6G4Nam
— Bryn Lindblad (@Bryn_Lindblad) December 3, 2020
One project in particular highlights this conflict. The Watsonville-Santa Cruz Multimodal Corridor project was approved for $93 million under the Solutions for Congested Corridors program as well as for another $14 million in the Local Partnership Competitive program. Proponents touted its “innovative” plan to allow buses to operate on the shoulder of Highway 1, in “the first hybrid bus-HOV highway shoulder lanes in the nation.”
The project includes some bike and pedestrian improvements on roads near the highway, but the bulk of the project would be add “auxiliary lanes” to the highway. That is, more highway lane miles, which proponents said were also a solution for interregional bus travel, since buses could use them.
But opponents said bus travel would suffer, not improve, and they urged the commission to reject the project. “The lion’s share would go to auxiliary lanes, which would not relieve congestion,” said Rick Longinotti of the Campaign for Sustainable Transportation. “And the casualty here is bus service. They may have permission to use bus shoulder lanes, but the auxiliary lanes will not help buses.”
“Highway congestion can only be solved with pricing,” he added. “Politicians look for other solutions, but none of them will work. This bus-on-shoulder proposal is only a bus-in-auxiliary lanes proposal, and it won’t improve service.”
Longinotti and other callers support dedicated bus-only lanes on the highway, so they can bypass congested car traffic and offer a reliable alternative to driving alone.
At one point, responding to a question from Commissioner Lyou, a CTC staff member admitted that “the auxiliary lane project alone would not have qualified for funding.” That is, other elements, such as signal synchronization with priority for transit and the active transportation components, lifted it above other projects. “It was the mix of all of those that made it competitive.”
At the same meeting, staff summarized a report on the economic development benefits and jobs that have been provided by S.B. 1 projects. The report estimates that 68,000 “job years” have been created, including “induced activity around construction.” Also, it estimates that S.B. 1 has brought a $5.7 billion increase in the gross state product, including wages that support families as well as the additional economic activity paid for through those wages, including rent, services, and taxes.
The plan is to make this information available online in a searchable database, but no date was mentioned for that to happen.
Active Transportation Program
An update on the ATP – staff are in the process of scoring about 450 applications requesting $2.3 billion, with $446 million available – generated a lot of comments from commissioners in support of growing the program.
Commissioner Lyou expressed concern that applicants who don’t get funding despite having worthwhile projects might give up, simply because the program is so oversubscribed. Commissioner Hilary Norton said unequivocally that more money needs to be added to the program.
“I agree wholeheartedly,” said Commissioner Carl Guardino, citing pent-up demand. “We are leaving a lot of worthy projects at the curb.”
“We are clearly seeing a shift in culture,” said Commissioner Michele Martinez. “Biking and walking infrastructure is vital, and now we’re seeing more and smaller jurisdictions applying for these funds – and we want them to continue to apply for these funds.”
A short discussion ensued about the need for technical assistance, with ATP program staffer Laurie Waters describing what the staff currently does. In Tulare County, for example, “our analysis showed that the county was underperforming,” she said. “So we did extra outreach with the county and the association of governments, we went on field reviews to see projects, and we quickly saw ways they could improve their applications.”
Equity Advisory Roundtable
The CTC is in the process of forming an Equity Advisory Roundtable. The Commission approved a preliminary list of participants, and plans to begin scheduling meetings for January or February.
The plan is to have about twenty participants to help the inform the commission and discuss issues of equity and inclusion.
Interest in participating has been high; the CTC received about 150 applications. Staff hope to achieve a balance both geographically and by area of expertise. Representatives of tribal groups and the disability community are still being sought/finalized.
Notable names include former (for a brief term) California Transportation Commissioner Tamika Butler, Ivette Torres from the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, and Nailah Pope-Harden of ClimatePlan.
The entire list is available here [PDF].