Caltrans' new mission is promising and here's how they can achieve it

To the relief of those who care about the people of California, and the future of the planet, Caltrans has a dramatically new mission.  
 
The old “Caltrans Improves Mobility Across California” mission statement often put it on a path of destruction, literally. Just look at their decision to destroy over 300 homes and 120 commercial properties in Bakersfield for a $500 million highway connector.
 
But Caltrans’ new mission is great. Catalyzed by an incredibly productive critique of the agency by State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI), it shows Secretary Brian Kelly and Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty are ready for change. The new Caltrans will “provide a safe, sustainable, integrated, and efficient transportation system to enhance California’s economy and livability.”
 
Now it will be up to all of us to see that the rest of the recommendations in the report are undertaken with the same speed and sincerity – the time to modernize Caltrans may finally be upon us. 
 
What are some of the key steps?
 
A few weeks ago I was invited to testify in front of the Assembly Transportation Committee and urged four immediate areas ripe for reform, the first three of which are in the SSTI report. Here is how the four main points of the testimony line up with Caltrans’ new mission.

  1. Safe! Have Caltrans immediately get out of the business of dictating local street design. Instead, they should adopt an excellent guide on urban design put out by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). Streets comprise more than 80% of public space in cities, and many need to be transformed. We won’t live up to Caltrans’ new mission if we rely on their outdated Highway Design Manual.
  2. Sustainable! Get Caltrans’ support to eliminate the widespread use of “Level of Service” as a primary metric that puts cars over people and places. Instead, we need to prioritize reduction in vehicle travel when planning new developments and transportation projects. We may see critical change this year, but we need Caltrans’ support. 
  3. Integrated! Change Caltrans’ highway expansion focus by finally supporting the Smart Mobility Framework. Adopted years ago by Caltrans, this is a great framework for focusing on land use, transit, vanpooling, pricing, and other options first, with highway expansion as a last resort. 
  4. Efficient! If we do make highway expansion a last resort we need more tools to move more people on our existing roads. One opportunity is to pursue “express lanes,” in which solo drivers can use carpool lanes for a fee. Right now regions that are pursuing these express lanes, like San Diego, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, must rely primarily on highway expansion (as required by an odd mix of Caltrans and State law). TransForm is urging pilot projects to convert an existing mixed-flow lane in each direction to express lanes, as long as it funds a massive expansion of transportation choices and provides low-income mitigations. 

Watch the Assembly Transportation Committee hearing, including opening comments from the SSTI report’s authors and Stuart’s full comments (at the 1:30 marker).

Over the next year TransForm will make it a top priority to build Statewide support for some of the report's recommendations. One way to help is by coming to this year’s Transportation Choices Summit and Advocacy Day.  
 
Let’s work together to make sure Caltrans lives up to its excellent new mission.

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TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.