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  • Writer's pictureZack Deutsch-Gross

TransForm Launches Campaign to Hold Caltrans Accountable


TransForm is a sponsor of critical legislation introduced by Assemblymember Pilar Schiavo. The Transportation Accountability Act, AB 2086, will require Caltrans to report how it spends our tax dollars and how its projects align with California’s climate, equity, economic prosperity, and safety goals. Setting goals to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation — the biggest contributor of climate-killing emissions in California — is meaningless if Caltrans continues to build projects that increase vehicle miles traveled (VMT), tear apart communities, and harm the environment and public health.


Why we need Caltrans accountability now


Recent events have highlighted the need to shed light on the often-opaque operations of the agency responsible for maintaining state-controlled routes throughout California. Last year, Caltrans fired Jeanie Ward-Waller, deputy director of planning and modal programs as she was about to blow the whistle on a project on I-80 that was spending road repair dollars on highway widening, an improper use of those funds. More recently, Joseph Lyou, president and CEO of the Coalition for Clean Air, wasn’t reappointed to the California Transportation Commission, the body that oversees Caltrans spending, after he expressed doubts about a controversial project where Caltrans appears to have skirted appropriate environmental review.


Ward-Waller, now a consultant with Fearless Advocacy, is working with TransForm to help pass the Transportation Accountability Act. We’re excited to have her expertise and advocacy in this fight.


The lack of transparency on Caltrans projects undermines taxpayer trust that state funds are being well spent. The Transportation Accountability Act will allow us to follow the money.


Why isn’t Caltrans already accountable?


Despite spending billions of dollars annually on transportation, California is not on track to meet our own climate and safety goals. Existing mechanisms for aligning transportation spending with state climate goals, including the Climate Action Plan for Transportation Infrastructure (CAPTI), don’t track or tie investments to outcomes and have loopholes that limit their effectiveness.


State regulations don’t require Caltrans to clearly demonstrate how transportation investments lead to concrete benefits for all Californians. To hold state agencies accountable and tie state spending to clear, measurable climate outcomes, we need easily understood, publicly accessible data.


Bringing more transparency and accountability to state spending is a common-sense issue that has long-standing bipartisan support. For example, last year labor and environmental stakeholders came together to pass SB 695 (Lena A. Gonzalez) to collect greater data on the state highway system. Additionally, Republican Assemblymember Vince Fong worked with Democrat Laura Friedman on AB 1475, which requires Caltrans to maintain an online dashboard of transportation projects.


The Transportation Accountability Act will help us understand how spending supports the California State Transportation Agency’s Core Four Priorities: Economic Prosperity, Safety, Climate Action, and Equity. This holistic approach will allow us to ensure that our tax dollars support the types of transportation investments that Californians want and need.


Transforming California's approach to transportation


California can’t prevent the worst effects of climate change by making policies to reduce GHG but doing nothing to implement them. We can’t foster equity if we continue to build infrastructure that increases the burden of pollutants on our most vulnerable residents. We must change the way we get around, and quickly, if we want to preserve our environment and protect our most vulnerable residents.


Caltrans was originally founded to build highways and move more motor vehicles faster, and that mindset persists. The industry that’s grown up around that push to lay down car lanes will need support to pivot its resources and labor to greener infrastructure. Changing the focus of our transportation investments to green alternatives such as biking, walking, and public transit won’t be easy. But it won’t be possible at all without transparency and accountability in how Caltrans spends tax dollars. That’s why the Transportation Accountability Act is essential in our fight for equitable transportation and to mitigate climate change.


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