California's Special Session: A big opportunity, if we do it right

Joshua Stark Headshot

 Mike KahnMany of us woke up exhausted after Election Day, uncertain of what the future holds and hoping for a moment to catch our breath.  But for transportation decisions in Sacramento, there’s no slowing down. For over a year now, a select group of legislators have been working on a deal to dramatically increase our state’s transportation funding through a special legislative session.  This Extraordinary Session on Transportation and Infrastructure (aka the Special Session) was convened by the Governor, and has until November 30 to finish the job before it expires.

With that deadline fast approaching, legislators and the Governor are considering a proposal that would generate over $7.2 billion per year of new revenues — that’s about 70% more than Caltrans’ current budget!

It’s a big proposal, and a big deal for Californians.  We need a fix for our worn-down roads and aging public transportation systems. And now, with brand new, stronger climate policies on the books, we also need to find fixes that also reduce emissions from transportation.

The problem is, the current proposal looks too much like business as usual, with significant funding allocated to building new roads and not enough emphasis on improving safety and mobility for our most vulnerable neighbors.  If it passes as written, it will work against our climate goals and lead to even worse congestion on our roads. That would be a big mistake.

Read on for the details, and for the changes our leaders must make to win TransForm’s support.

What would this proposal do?

In the current proposal (SBX1-1), the state would tap a variety of sources to raise money for transportation, including gasoline sales and excise tax increases, increases in taxes on diesel sales and storage, vehicle license and registration fees, and an electronic vehicle fee.  Much of this new revenue would also increase every three years according to the Consumer Price Index in order to keep pace with inflation. 

In addition to these new funds, the proposal seeks to reform a number of California transportation-related policies and rules, including changes to the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Transportation Commission.

The new funds would help to repair our road system, which is certainly in need of maintenance. But this proposal isn’t just about “fixing our roads.” It includes well over a billion dollars annually to programs that may fund new roads — a surefire way to worsen congestion and lengthen commutes.

The proposal contains very little for public transportation.  Only two sources for new public transportation funding are proposed: 1) tripling the diesel sales tax, which would only generate a little over $200 million per year, and; 2) doubling two programs from the cap-and-trade program, which would generate an unknown amount (and has little chance of actually passing).

The proposal also includes an increase in funding for biking and walking: $80-$150 million to the state’s Active Transportation Program, which comes close to doubling the program in size. However, it does little to require that streets be retrofitted so that people can actually bike and walk safely on them, even when those streets are scheduled to be “fixed” in Caltrans’ State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP) for road maintenance.

Why doesn’t this proposal make the grade?

For decades, we’ve dedicated the vast majority of our transportation resources to building roads only for cars, causing the worst air quality in the nation and forcing people to buy and care for expensive, polluting cars in order to get around.

But over the past decade, California has passed laws that set strict limits on our greenhouse gas and other air pollutants. We’ve also begun prioritizing climate investments to benefit our most disadvantaged communities by funding more affordable homes near transit, better public transportation, and improving bicycling and walking safety. 

These policies are beginning to reverse the trend of over-investment in cars, instead funding projects and programs that improve people’s mobility, health, and communities. Any new transportation funding plan should reinforce this new direction, but this proposal does not.

Instead it focuses on moving cars, not improving people’s lives. Even with SB 32 in place — the new, world-changing emissions reduction targets for 2030 that our leaders passed in September — the legislature continues to ignore our single biggest emissions source (transportation!) when funding infrastructure prjoects.

In a $7.4 billion proposal, it’s outrageous and unacceptable that only $400 million — just over 5% — would be proposed for the entire state’s transit, bicycle, and pedestrian needs. What’s more, while state law has wisely required regions to make plans for how to reduce emissions from transportation, there is no requirement that any of this money line up with those plans. With this proposal — most funding going to roads, and just a dribble for other options — state leaders are setting us up for increased climate emissions and a more expensive, gridlocked future. This could effectively cancel out many of the benefits of their own strong climate policies.

As for equity provisions: there are none. For five years, California’s legislature has led the nation in identifying and prioritizing investments in our state’s most disadvantaged communities.  And yet, this latest proposal contains no provisions to ensure that we identify and prioritize those communities bearing the greatest burdens of our current infrastructure's failings —  communities breathing in freeway pollution, with children dodging traffic and walking on dangerous streets with no sidewalks to get to school.

As California looks to the future, we must consider the projects that will make that future better: safer, healthier, and more fair.  But the current proposal reflects old thinking – the very thinking that got us where we are today. 

What can we do about it?

Throughout the Special Session, TransForm and many environmental, social justice, and walk/bike advocates have been working hard to help California get this funding and oversight right. We would love to see more funding for transportation, if it goes to the right things!  Last week, we sent a letter to state leaders with a list of reforms needed to make this proposal make sense. These reforms include:

  • $1.7 billion for public transportation, including $150 million for a student transit pass program;
  • Ensuring that truly Complete Streets get built for all Californians to use (especially where Caltrans is already scheduling to “fix” roads), and that communities can give real input into what they need;
  • Aligning the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) to our statewide and regional climate goals by tracking the performance of our transportation projects;
  • Requiring state transportation dollars to provide direct and quantifiable benefits to low income and transportation disadvantaged communities;
  • Reforming the California Transportation Commission so that it includes experts on public transportation, active transportation, and impacts to disadvantaged communities;
  • Protecting the integrity of the California Environmental Quality Act.

With the election behind us, we are turning our focus solidly to ensuring that our state leaders reject any proposal that does not include these important changes.

Especially right now, California must continue down a path of sustainability and opportunity for all, every chance we get. This new money, along with the right reforms, could herald a new direction for our transportation systems. It’s a tough climb, but we can get this right. The world is watching.


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