Can new state funding address our drought of transportation choices?

Joshua Stark Headshot

 Flickr_AnthonyPrevostThree weeks into 2017, the forecast is already predicting potential downpours of new transportation funding in Sacramento.

The Legislature has introduced a huge new infrastructure funding package (SB1 and AB1) with $6 billion for transportation, annually over the next ten years. The Governor’s budget proposal contains a similar plan that would raise $4.3 billion in new transportation funds in the next year. And the last cap-and-trade allowance auction — 60% of which is invested in transportation and sustainable communities through the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF) — brought in nearly $400 million, a huge rebound from previously low revenues.

This could be great news. But, like the recent storms that have simultaneously filled our reservoirs and flooded our streets, it’s not only the amount, but where the money flows, that will determine whether it helps or hurts California’s communities in the long run.

We’re seeing some splashes of hope for walking, biking, and public transportation, but nothing sufficient to end the drought of transportation choices and ensure a healthy, connected future for all Californians. And a lot of the money continues to be showered on outdated transportation strategies that only guarantee us more traffic and pollution. That’s kind of like watering lawns in the summertime.

We need our leaders to pour more funding into the future of transportation — not the past. TransForm and our allies are calling on state leaders to take this opportunity to invest in transportation choices that will strengthen our communities, get us out of gridlock, and truly fight climate change.

After wading through these proposals, here’s what we think.

Governor Brown and Legislative leadership stepped up for walking and biking

Both Governor Brown’s and the Legislature’s proposals have stepped up investments in safer walking and biking.

Governor Brown has proposed $100 million for the Active Transportation Program (ATP), funded with GGRF revenues. Half of this funding would be required to benefit disadvantaged communities, further focusing it on those who need it most.

Legislative leadership has proposed allocating $80-$150 million to the Active Transportation Program, funded with State Highway Account dollars and savings from making Caltrans more efficient.

Crosswalks, sidewalks, and bike lanes are highly cost-effective investments that encourage healthier living and prevent tragedies in our communities — especially for low-income Californians, who are disproportionately injured and killed when walking and biking. Walking and biking investments also directly reduce climate pollution when they replace driving trips. We’re thrilled to see these common-sense solutions gaining traction in Sacramento.

Public transportation investments: increased but imbalanced, and not nearly enough

We are encouraged by the Governor’s focus on public transportation funding, as demonstrated by an additional $400 million of GGRF funding for transit capital projects as well as a repayment of past funding borrowed from transportation programs. In total, the Governor wants to invest $806 million in building new public transportation — that’s fantastic!

However, we cannot count on these climate funds alone — raised by cap-and-trade and needed for a variety of carbon-reducing projects (see our Climate Benefits Map!) — to meet our public transportation needs. We also need to dedicate long-term transportation funding sources to public transit. Public transportation should be funded with new revenue generated from transportation sources (such as vehicle license fees, bridge and highway tolls, gas taxes, etc.), which would be more stable and reliable than just cap-and-trade sources.

We are also concerned that the Governor’s public transportation money is entirely focused on new projects and service. We support and appreciate the Governor’s desire to invest in transit capital, but we need to see a proportional investment in improving existing service for people who already rely on the bus or train for their daily travel, and to making sure we can afford to run new transit service once it’s built.

The Legislature proposes doubling both the transit capital and transit operations programs in the GGRF for a total of $660 million in climate-funded transit. We appreciate their recognition of the importance of operations to a healthy transit funding plan. They also propose tripling the diesel gas tax, which would generate an estimated $215 million per year for transit capital — exactly the type of long-term funding source we need for public transportation. Yet $215 million out of a total package of $6 billion is laughably small.

Our lawmakers in Sacramento should be making dramatic increases in public transit spending from any new long-term transportation funding source, and split transit funding more equally between capital and operations. We simply cannot achieve a twenty-first century transportation system with a trickle of funding.

Highway repairs good; highway expansion misaligned with priorities

By far, the bulk of the Governor’s transportation funding proposal would go to repairs and maintenance of our state highways and local roads. $1.8 billion for Caltrans highway maintenance and another $1.1 billion for local road repairs will go a long way toward fixing the infrastructure we have. That helps not only people in cars, but also people on buses and bikes, who suffer from the same potholes in their daily travels.

We are most concerned that this budget does little to address social equity concerns regarding transportation, and it makes no meaningful connection between transportation funding and climate change. It is in stark contrast to the Governor’s bold statements on climate action that the State Transportation Improvement Program, which predominantly funds highway expansions, would receive the third-largest pot of money ($750 million) but contains no climate or equity requirements.

If California is going to meet our bold emission reduction targets by 2030, we need bold change in our transportation sector, which is the largest single contributor to emissions in the state. That will require leadership, vision, and money. The governor and the legislature have championed ambitious climate targets, but they are missing a big opportunity to meet them.

Continued investment in climate action

Speaking of the climate: in his budget, the Governor also called for an urgency vote to reauthorize the state’s cap-and-trade climate program, which provides the funding for the GGRF. Cap-and-trade has been challenged in court and is presumed to need a ⅔ vote of the Legislature to continue past 2020, if not also to defend its current existence.

TransForm and many, many other stakeholders have helped shape the spending priorities of the GGRF, and we support continued investment in forward-thinking, integrated climate action. Our website ClimateBenefitsCA.org shows how these investments are improving people’s lives throughout California — especially for those who have been most impacted by pollution and economic disinvestment. We want the GGRF to keep funding more public transportation, safer walking and biking, and affordable homes near transit, as well as other climate strategies like urban forestry, sustainable agriculture, and wetlands restoration.

We strongly support continuing to cap and price carbon, with the revenues fully dedicated to projects and programs that further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and maximize benefits to disadvantaged communities. Working with our allies and coalition partners including Sustainable Communities for All, we will be actively engaged in this discussion as it begins to move through the Legislature.

And last but not least, the Governor has proposed $25 million in grants for regional planning to meet climate targets under SB 375, a small but significant investment in helping regions more effectively achieve their greenhouse gas reduction goals. We’re all for that too.

Preparing for the transportation funding storm ahead

After last year’s failed Extraordinary Session on Transportation Funding, the dam is ready to burst for many of our state leaders, who have been working for two years to approve new funding for transportation. They’re itching to get a transportation deal done as soon as possible, and in advance of the full budget, which is usually passed in June.

While hopes for an accelerated timetable may get washed out by the Governor’s push for a cap-and-trade vote, or any number of other unforeseen political emergencies, we’re not going to hedge our bets. TransForm and our allies are pulling on our raincoats and rubber boots and jumping in right now, to ensure our leaders in Sacramento invest in forward-looking transportation choices for all Californians.

Help us make a splash: contact me for more information or to get involved, and stay tuned for more updates as the legislative session starts to move.

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About This Blog

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.