In his January budget proposal for fiscal year 2016-17, Governor Brown reintroduced his plan for addressing the state’s dwindling transportation revenues and its crumbling infrastructure.
When it comes to creating real transportation choices, the proposal is a mixed bag.
On the one hand, the Governor’s proposal finally increases transportation funding, and directs that funding largely into sorely needed road maintenance and new public transportation.
On the other hand, it fails to include a fix for our oversubscribed walking and biking fund, the Active Transportation Program (ATP). It also diverts climate funds to so-called “Low Carbon Roads” that may have dubious uses.
Let me take you for a tour of the Governor’s plan, starting with the revenues.
Where will the money come from?
The Governor’s plan calls for new revenues, including increases to vehicle registration fees as well as gasoline and diesel taxes. The gasoline and diesel tax increases would be pegged to inflation, so they would no longer lose value over time. These increases require two-thirds approval from the Legislature, which means the Governor needs every Democratic vote and at least five votes from Republicans to pass his plan.
Overall, this focus on user fees to support new transportation spending is welcome, compared to general revenue bonds or sales taxes. Yet they may also have regressive impacts, so we’d like to see a very progressive plan for spending these funds.
In addition to these new revenues, the Governor’s proposal also calls for spending $500 million from the state’s cap-and-trade climate fund. After all is accounted for, the Governor hopes to spend $36 billion over the next decade on transportation projects throughout the state.
Where will the money go?
Brian Kelly, the Secretary of the State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), has said that this money should go primarily to road rehabilitation and maintenance. Indeed, the lion’s share of funding goes into keeping our local roads, highways and bridges in good and safe condition.
About $200 million annually will go to the Trade Corridor Improvement Fund (TCIF), which will mean some highway or rail improvements, especially near ports.
The proposal would invest $400 million more in cap-and-trade dollars for public transit capital, with 50% of that designated for disadvantaged communities.
TransForm is also very concerned about where the money doesn’t go: namely, public transportation operations, and biking and walking. TransForm and our allies have advocated for years now to invest in the woefully underfunded Active Transportation Program (ATP), and in transit operations statewide.
While the $400 million for transit capital is a strong acknowledgement of the huge deficits that public transit faces, we also need operations funding to ensure that transit agencies can support and expand reliable, effective service, as well as provide safe access for travelers.
With regards to walking and biking, a few programs include bicycle and pedestrian project “eligibility”, but these dollars are rarely used directly for active transportation projects. Meanwhile, demand for funds for bicycle and pedestrian safety projects is very strong, but remains underfunded by the state: the ATP is underinvested in by about $1 billion per year. It’s irresponsible for the Governor’s plan to “fix” our state’s transportation system to dedicate no new money to walking and biking infrastructure.
Instead, the Governor’s proposal would put $100 million per year to a brand-new “Low Carbon Roads” program, which allows for more leeway for a variety of transportation projects to be funded with climate funds – including at least one project type (traffic light synchronization) that may very well increase greenhouse gas emissions.
How the budget’s transportation proposals impact climate and equity
Transportation is California’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, the Governor’s transportation proposals have no clear vision for addressing transportation pollution in a comprehensive way. What’s more, as I mentioned above, some of the funding could even result in more emissions.
As the New York Times has reported, a Harvard study last year identified transportation as the single largest factor in escaping poverty. California has some of the worst commute times in the country, and it also has a tremendous amount of pent-up demand for real transportation choices.
This proposal comes at a time when millions of working class Californians are clamoring for better transportation choices. We need options that save people money and improve our health and safety.
We all want to live close to our jobs, but our urban neighborhoods are becoming prohibitively expensive. Lower-income Californians are being pushed out of communities that have been their home for generations; working families need more affordable transportation choices so they can get around reliably without a car.
And though the Governor's budget proposal makes a nod to addressing inequity, such as investing 50% of its proposed cap and trade dollars in disadvantaged communities, it makes no attempt to address equity with provisions on the additional new revenues it seeks to raise – revenues from regressive sources.
To be fair, regressive revenue generators – like a gas tax increase – should be invested in ways that primarily benefit those who bear the biggest burden of paying. In transportation, that means prioritizing projects in disadvantaged communities, and in real choices for working families - like better buses, trains, sidewalks, and bike lanes. These investments are needed to protect our climate, too.
Our transportation spending should support climate protection and equity at every turn, especially at a time when the world is looking to our state as an example of climate action. The Legislature should work to align the transportation funding in the state budget with the forward-looking transportation investments from cap-and-trade revenues.
For starters, state leaders should use climate funds to expand the Active Transportation Program (ATP) and prioritize transportation investments in our most disadvantaged communities. Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia’s proposal to increase the ATP by $125 million and direct Caltrans to prioritize disadvantaged communities would curb climate pollution and make walking, biking, and riding public transit safer and more accessible.
State leaders should also support Senator Allen and Assemblymembers Chiu and Bloom's proposal to put a better diesel revenue increase on the table – one that would invest in public transportation, cutting emissions and providing Californians with more affordable options for getting around.
Transportation – the leading source of climate emissions in the state – must be fully incorporated into our climate efforts. We need all of our state leaders to understand this, and act on it.