Our state’s great opportunity to make public transportation work for everyone

Ryan Wiggins Headshot

Commuters board Caltrain with their bikes. Photo Mike Kahn.Sometimes a late bus means much more than a delayed inconvenience. 

For those who can afford to drive, slow or infrequent transit service can act as a push to get back in the car. But for the many Californians who rely on public transportation to connect them to where they need to be, it can be a significant barrier to a good job or getting an education.

We have all experienced bad transit service. Standing at the bus stop not knowing how much longer we have to wait, knowing that the next train won’t come for 30 minutes, waiting with our bike as we see a bus roll up with full racks. These delays and many others make life more difficult for dedicated transit riders and discourage potential riders.

That’s why it’s so important that we make effective use of California’s cap-and-trade proceeds that will fund reliable and affordable public transportation.

On November 7, Caltrans and the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) released Draft Guidelines for the Low Carbon Transit Operations Program (LCTOP) for public input.

Soon, the LCTOP, a new cap-and-trade program included in this year’s budget package, will bring a much-needed infusion of funding for world-class transit service to cash-strapped transit agencies around the state.

Starting in 2015, the LCTOP will receive 5% of annual cap-and-trade proceeds. With auctions expected to generate as much as $5 billion annually by 2020, this is a significant amount of funding to get more people out of their cars, riding rail and bus systems, and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution.  

The LCTOP Draft Guidelines provide a strong foundation for a program that can be used to improve our communities’ transportation choices, health, and quality of life. With some improvements, it could become a model program for how to invest in world-class transit. What follows is a look at what’s in the Draft Guidelines, and the changes that will enable the program to reach its full potential. 

Who’s in charge of the funding?

Unlike other cap-and-trade transportation and land-use programs, the LCTOP is formula-funded. This means that agencies in charge of planning and operating transit systems (like BART and LA Metro) will receive funding based on the population they serve, year after year, and are responsible for coming up with a detailed investment plan. That plan will consist of projects and programs that must be submitted to the state for approval.

What types of investments are eligible?

In the current guidelines, both infrastructure and operations investments are eligible for funding.

Transit passes, one of TransForm and SC4A’s major priorities, are eligible for investment. This will allow agencies to expand existing transit pass programs for key populations such as students, seniors, low-income, disabled, or other key populations.

Agencies can also invest in increasing the frequency of bus and rail service, or add new service.

In terms of infrastructure, eligible projects include those to improve facilities such as sheltered bus and rail stops, improved terminals, fueling infrastructure, technology that gives real time information, and other projects that would improve service and increase ridership.   

Where will the investments go?

Because this is a formula-funded program, every transit agency will receive funding. Fortunately, there is a major emphasis on funding Disadvantaged Communities. Agencies that serve disadvantaged communities are required to invest at least 50% of the funding they receive to benefit these communities.

What needs to be improved?

The Draft Guidelines are the first step in determining what types of investments can be made and who will be in charge of making them. While there’s a lot we like in this document, TransForm and the Sustainable Communities for All Coalition (SC4A) are working for improvement in the following areas.

Involving communities in decision-making

Identifying the investments that will result in the greatest GHG emissions reduction, increase ridership, and provide the most public benefit will require collaboration between public agencies and community members. We would like the Draft Guidelines to require an agency to conduct a public process to decide where to invest this funding.

Preventing displacement

Improved public health, cleaner air, less pollution, and increased property values are just some of the community benefits of investing in walkable communities with robust transit service. Unfortunately, these increasingly high-demand neighborhoods have become much more expensive, making it hard for low and middle-income households to afford them. This often results in the displacement of existing residents.

Yet middle- and low-income households in transit rich neighborhoods own fewer cars and ride transit at much higher rates than higher-income households. Therefore, it’s important that these neighborhoods remain affordable to all, not only to improve equity and opportunity, but also to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

While the Draft Guidelines do include an emphasis on avoiding displacement of existing residents, they can be improved to prevent families from being priced out of their homes. This can be accomplished by phasing in requirements that in order to receive funding, cities must have policies that protect against displacement .

Benefiting Disadvantaged Communities

We support the requirement that 50% of these funds be invested in Disadvantaged Communities. For a project to achieve a real and lasting positive impact to a community, it should have to meet a high bar to demonstrate that it provides significant benefits. The guidelines currently only require a project have one benefit to qualify as meeting the Disadvantaged Communities Requirement. To ensure that a project has meaningful and positive impacts in these communities, the guidelines should be changed to require multiple benefits.

Make bicycle and pedestrian projects eligible         

Safe and convenient access for pedestrians and bicyclists to transit stations is critical for getting more people to ride bus and rail. In Los Angeles County, for example, over 90% of transit riders access bus and rail by walking or riding a bike.

Making eligible such projects as improvements to sidewalks, bike lanes, bike storage, and other similar investments will allow agencies to make the changes they need to get people out of their cars and riding transit.

Pushing forward

Caltrans and CalSTA have an ambitious timeline to gather input over the coming weeks, make changes, and release the final guidelines by December 19. The Draft Guidelines are a good start.

After years of budget cuts and stagnating revenues for transit agencies around the state, the LCTOP offers a chance for transit agencies to invest in the type of high-quality,  fast, convenient, and clean transit service that we need. This world-class transportation will help us meet our climate protection goals, drive our economy forward, and improve the quality of life in our communities.

TransForm and the SC4A Coalition are currently working on a formal comment letter in response to the Draft Guidelines that includes suggestions to address the issues above and others. With the adjustments outlined above, we can ensure that the LCTOP will have a major and lasting impact by reducing greenhouse gas pollution, investing in world-class transit service, and improving the economic welfare of California's communities.

Your input in this program is valuable.

Please contact Ryan Wiggins to learn more about this letter and how you can be involved in shaping this program as it moves forward.

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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.