With only three days left in the California legislative session (counting today), I’m confident our state leaders will make history – if not for the laws they pass, then for the sheer madness of 2015’s political antics on transportation.
Shortly after my last blog post describing how legislators punted important budget details to the end of the session, Governor Brown called a special legislative session on transportation that has been running concurrently with the regular session. As a result, the past month has brought double the action in Sacramento for anyone interested in how Californians get from here to there.
Now, the Governor has weighed in with his own proposal for how to fund a backlog of road repairs – a backlog the San Francisco Chronicle has called “a hidden vehicle tax of $762 per year.”
The good news is, the proposal shows that the Governor clearly recognizes that our transportation woes cannot be fixed with roads alone. It includes funding for public transportation, walking, and biking. TransForm has been calling for any new state transportation funding to include funds for non-driving options – which is why we will continue to support the proposal from Senator Ben Allen and Assemblymember David Chiu to invest $600 million annually in public transportation through an increase in the diesel fuel tax.
But we’re concerned by other parts of the Governor’s plan. In particular, we’re worried about proposed changes to the California Environmental Quality Act and the use of funds from the state’s cap-and-trade climate program. Even with the clock counting down to September 11, when every legislator will be eager to wrap up and head home, we need our leaders to keep the big picture in mind, and reject proposals that would take our state in the wrong direction.
Leave CEQA alone
Any tax increase will require a two-thirds super-majority in both houses of the legislature. That means compromise – and the Governor has offered up the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) as a bargaining chip to win over legislators who don’t want to raise taxes. His proposal would allow for streamlined CEQA review of a wide array of transportation infrastructure projects. But this would make it much harder to ensure that new transportation projects don’t hurt people and the environment.
TransForm believes that transportation and housing investments should help solve our environmental problems – like climate change and air pollution – and that they should benefit, not harm, low-income people and people of color. CEQA is often the only legal means for people to weigh in on projects that have tremendous impacts on their communities and regions.
We don’t think streamlining CEQA is right or necessary in order to fix our transportation system. And from the responses we’ve seen in the media, we’re not convinced that it’s an effective compromise strategy anyway.
Be very careful with the use of climate funds
This year, California’s cap-and-trade program brought in over $2 billion in revenue for the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF). The legislature left 40% of this money unallocated in the June budget deal, and was expected to decide how to spend it by the end of the regular session (this Friday).
We would prefer to keep the GGRF fund allocation separate from the special session, to ensure the primary purpose of these funds – reducing our climate pollution – remains in the forefront when discussing their use. But in his special session plan, the Governor proposed using $500 million of GGRF funds for “greenhouse gas reduction strategies” in the realm of transportation.
$100 million of that would go to a new Complete Streets fund that is not clearly defined and could easily be diverted to road projects that are not effective long-term strategies for reducing climate pollution. We think this money should instead be invested in the existing Active Transportation Program, which focuses on investing in walking and biking projects, has proven benefits for climate protection, and was already oversubscribed in its first year of funding.
The other $400 million would be used to expand the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP), one of the programs that’s already funded with GGRF money. We have three concerns with this piece of the proposal.
- First, the funds would be diverted from other GGRF programs that address energy efficiency, waste diversion, and protection of natural resources like forests and watersheds. We want to ensure that the GGRF continues to invest in a wide range of climate protection strategies. We absolutely need to use all the tools in the toolbox to achieve our long-term climate strategies.
- Second, we think that any money for public transportation and intercity rail should be split between building new transit (capital investments) and strengthening existing train and bus service (operations/maintenance). Putting all this money into the TIRCP means we aren’t expanding service that already exists, like buses, which has the most immediate impact on reducing emissions and increasing mobility in communities struggling with pollution and economic disadvantages.
- Finally, we want funds for new transit to include building smaller projects, not just large urban rail projects. We need our rural communities to be part of the climate solution, and often that means smaller-scale investments that have a big impact on people’s lives.
Three days left
The special session doesn’t have the same cutoff as the regular session – it’s special, after all. So it’s unclear whether legislators will rush to finish everything by Friday night, or if they will find themselves unable to broker a final deal on transportation while also trying to resolve big fights like the one over SB 350 (which we strongly support, especially now that it includes a focus on reducing driving).
Either way, both CEQA and climate funding are long-term battles that will inevitably come up in future sessions. Our legislators need to hear from us now, that the solution to both our crumbling transportation system and the global climate crisis won’t be found in gutting environmental protections or diverting money away from energy efficiency programs.
As our allies wrote in the Sacramento Bee last week, the key to getting Californians moving in a climate-friendly direction is putting public transportation, walking, and biking at the center of our transportation strategy. It’s time to stop tacking these solutions onto outdated, roads-first planning. We can make history with real investments in transportation choices that are healthy, affordable, and fair.
Please join us in urging our leaders to do right by their final decisions of 2015:
- Call your legislators about the special session - find their phone numbers here and share the concerns described in this blog post
- Send an email to your legislators to urge them to pass SB 350 now