Debrief on SB 1: the best bill we’ve ever opposed

Joshua Stark Headshot

Early April in Sacramento was about as exciting as it gets for a transportation advocate.

After nearly two years of negotiations, the Legislature late last week approved a massive $5 billion per year spending package intended to fix up California’s aging and dilapidated transportation systems.

The package — known as SB 1 — represents significant progress on the things TransForm cares most about, with dramatic increases in funding for public transit, walking, and biking.  What started as a business-as-usual funding package primarily for roads ended up as a surprisingly forward-looking plan for California’s transportation future.  

Thanks to consistent advocacy from TransForm and a strong coalition of allies, a significant number of our demands were met in the final bill language.

Unfortunately, one vital improvement to SB 1was not made: addressing the harm that transportation infrastructure can do to our most vulnerable communities.  And a last-second provision to weaken air quality protections for these very communities (completely unrelated to transportation funding), prevented TransForm and our allies from supporting the bill (more on this later). 

Our collective opposition to this polluting provision showed the depth of our commitment to environmental justice, and the strength of our growing movement for a future where all Californians — especially low-income communities and communities of color — can count on affordable, reliable, and healthy transportation choices that don’t harm their health.

As in any deal, there were some other parts of the bill we would have liked to change, too, but from the relatively fair and efficient revenue mechanism to the ways the money will be invested, we think the deal represents a significant shift in our state transportation priorities.  In the end, SB 1 may be the best bill we’ve ever opposed. 

Here’s an overview of everything that’s in the bill. As you’ll see at that link, there’s a lot there! Read on for our key takeaways and more details on how we got here.

Nearly $1 billion for sustainable transportation, from dedicated funding sources

SB 1 represents a paradigm shift for transportation, both in the details of the funding package and the way it was engineered.

When we first saw SB 1, not even 5% of the funding was dedicated to public transportation.  At the time, we called it a slap in the face. Now, the final package contains hundreds of millions of new dollars for public transportation, and $100 million for walking and biking — doubling funding for the state’s Active Transportation Program.  Altogether, we believe that it’s close to $1 billion — nearly 20% — dedicated for transit, walking, and biking.

What’s more, the funding sources for transit, walking, and biking shifted significantly over the course of the debate.  Originally, unpredictable cap-and-trade revenues were the main source of the transit funding. But in the final bill, transit funding will come from a much more reliable tax base — pegged to inflation — including money for operations to keep our buses and trains running.  The walk/bike money is taken out of the State Highway Account, representing a shift to spending money on people who walk and bike, instead of just on cars.

And of the money that is dedicated to roads, the lion’s share — $3.7 billion per year — is dedicated to fixing existing roads, and making some “Complete Streets” improvements. This means that even money going towards roads may help people who walk, bike, and take transit.

Click here to read MTC’s detailed analysis of SB 1, which includes many other important details.

These wins are the fruits of years of labor, and they show that our work has started to change the terms of the debate.  For example: a Republican Senator whose vote was required to meet the two-thirds vote threshold hinged his final agreement on the promise of commuter rail funding for his district.  Yes — a transit project won the swing vote.  Ten, or even two years ago, it would have been a highway project that persuaded a legislator to come on board.  But the times are changing, and we are grateful to the many allies and advocates who have helped shift the debate in our favor.

Building unity, finding new champions

Speaking of allies, we believe that SB 1 included so much good stuff — and excluded most of the bad — because advocates are doing a better job of working together.  From national groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club, to statewide leaders like ClimatePlan and the California Bicycle Coalition, to regional and local partners like The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) and Move LA, we have built a deep and broad coalition that held together through the rollercoaster of negotiations and last-minute changes.

This coalition developed our position during the long 2016 Extraordinary Session on Transportation, making it easy to rally again when the same sub-standard proposals resurfaced in early 2017.  Thanks to the sustained advocacy of over eighty organizations, Senator Jim Beall worked hard to get a deal that met many of our demands.  We also worked closely with Senators Ben Allen and Scott Wiener, who emerged as champions for transit, speaking out for a better deal in the media and with their colleagues.

A poison pill at the eleventh hour

Although we saw many positive changes as the deal came to its end, our environmental justice demands were consistently ignored, refused, or outright opposed. We find it unacceptable that our most vulnerable and communities, often located near freeways, ports, and warehouses, continue to bear the brunt of our infrastructure investments while reaping little reward.

We kept pushing and negotiating, knowing that the two-thirds vote requirement made this an uphill climb. Some groups in the coalition were preparing to support SB 1, based on the improved investment plan. Other coalition members, still greatly disappointed that environmental justice was not prioritized, were even considering moving from opposition to neutral.

Then we learned about a last-minute backroom deal with the trucking industry that none of us could accept. This deal would exempt large diesel trucks from vital air pollution regulations; a loophole that would allow pollution that is already causing asthma, heart disease, and other harms in low-income communities and communities of color to continue unchecked.

The decision we had to make was clear, though it was painful after winning so much progress on this bill. But the way we win matters. We can’t sacrifice public health for public transportation — California needs both. We won’t turn our backs on our allies in the environmental justice movement, or our neighbors in communities that been sold out and underinvested in time and time again. The coalition held strong, promising to oppose the bill as long as the “dirty trucking” loophole was included. 

In the final days and hours before the vote, the coalition and our champions in the Senate, especially Senators Allen and Wiener, pulled out all the stops to get the loophole removed. They managed to weaken the language some, but not enough. We also raised awareness about the loophole, which was mentioned in several prominent news articles across the state (from The Los Angeles Times to The Sacramento Bee).

And the end of the day, SB 1 was passed. But even though the polluting loophole wasn’t removed, our solidarity gives us hope. Our coalition was tested and emerged even stronger. Our unity may have surprised legislators, who will remember in the future that we held together in the face of very strong pressure. State leaders took heat for catering to a polluting industry, and we hope they think twice before trying that again.

As with any mega-package, SB 1 will require significant ongoing scrutiny as our state and regional agencies figure out how to spend the money.  As we fully digest this beast of a deal, we’ll be assessing the top priorities for TransForm and our allies as we shift into the next phase of fixing California’s ailing transportation system.  And the flaws in SB 1 — especially the nasty trucking pollution provision — are high on that list.

For now, though, we are relieved (and exhausted) to get to the finish line on what has been a marathon of a legislative effort.  We have a funding package that includes major investments in public transit, walking and biking.  We have state leadership that is willing to listen and negotiate on some of our most important issues.  And we have coalesced a powerful group of organizations from around the state that are willing to stand up for each other and for our concerns.

With our partners, TransForm intends to keep pushing for greater equity in state transportation investments — like at our upcoming Transportation Equity Summit, co-sponsored with the California Bicycle Coalition. Register to join us in Sacramento — we’d love to have you with us!

Please don’t hesitate to reach out with questions or input about SB 1, or any of our state advocacy efforts: Add a comment, contact me, or read more about our state work here.


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PDF icon SB1-coalition-letter-3Feb2017.pdf1.47 MB