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Path to Nice Roads Bypasses California

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. Likewise, you can lead California's road builders to ISTEA/TEA-21Transportation Enhancements, but you apparently can't make them take advantage of the matching funds. That's a shame because this resistance ensures that the state has poorly landscaped roads, fewer bridge and railroad depot renovations, and minimal interpretive centers for historic and scenic area. The Transportation Enhancement (TE) program is a cornerstone of the revolutionized federal highway funding legislation, and it's designed to beautify utilitarian roadways. It also nicely complements other parts of the ISTEA/TEA-21 by providing funding for greenways and bike paths, bicycle and pedestrian safety programs, control and removal of outdoor advertising, and nine other eligible activities intended to balance transportation systems. Planners might think of the TE program as a New Urbanist approach to circulation. ISTEA the Intermodel Surface Transportation Efficiency Act has been the Federal funding legislation since 1991. In 1998, it was reauthorized as TEA-21. It replaced the old Federal Highway Act with a new approach to transportation planning and decision making. For the first time, federal transportation law called for (1) long-range, multi-modal planning, (2) active involvement of local governments, (3) extensive public involvement, (4) greater attention to maintenance of the existing system, fiscal accountability, social equity and environmental responsibility, and (5) inclusion of bicycling and walking. We now know that this bold step forward is enabling communities to make the best transportation decisions for their future. But a recent study summarizing nationwide spending patterns for transportation enhancements presents a disappointing picture. The report, published by the National Transportation Enhancement Clearinghouse, found that 100% of the National Highway system funds were "obligated" (in the transportation jargon), and 78% of the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) funds were obligated. However, only 65.5% of the available TE funds were claimed nationally. California was among the worst of the pack. In the 1999 program year, the state grabbed only 53.8% of the $320 million dollars available. In contrast, Puerto Rico, Alaska, and Wyoming all obligated at least 99% of the eligible funds. California ranks 43rd in a list of 52 states, districts, and territories eligible. It gets worse for people who would prefer beautified and bike-friendly movement corridors. Since 1995, the amount of obligated funds has steadily declined, even though TE funding has generally grown. National data for 1999 show that of $631 million, only $365 million (58%) is obligated. What is going on? Megan Betts, manager of the National Transportation Enhancement Clearinghouse, said that implementation of transportation enhancements needs to speed up. "We need to figure our why, nationwide, things are not moving faster," Betts said. Kate Bickert, director of the Rail to Trails Conservancy's California Field Office, said one problem is that planning money is not readily available for TE projects. Without documented planning support, there is no obligation of funds. There have been structural problems at the state level as well: until December 1998, all projects had to go to Caltrans' state office to compete for funds. That system did not bode well for projects that many engineers consider to be "frills." Thankfully, the California Transportation Commission appears to have cured this bureaucratic problem by redirecting TE project decision-making to local transportation commissions, which work with Caltrans' district office staff for clearance. But other regional issues remain: Are there local project advocates? Are the Caltrans district engineers willing to accept alternative transportation? Are they comfortable with designing trails? Are relations good between a transportation commission and Caltrans staff? Bickert contended that institutional bias runs deep at Caltrans, especially in Los Angeles, the Central Valley, the Inland Empire, and rural counties. "If an engineer has 20 projects, and five are multi-million dollar road projects, the one-million dollar bike trail quickly falls to the bottom of the list," she said. California's transportation enhancement projects that have come about are highly visible. Consider that the renovation and adaptive reuse funds for Los Angeles' Union Station and San Francisco's Ferry Building came from the TE pot. Then, there is the East Bay's Iron Horse Trail a multi-purpose facility linking two counties, 11 cities, and three BART stations. Also, the Ventura County Transportation Commission bought a 32-mile railway corridor for a proposed rail-with-trail project in the rural Santa Clara River Valley with TE money. It is encouraging that the system works in some of the state's regions, and may get better statewide. "We have and will continue to obligate all of our TE money in our region" said Ginger Gherardi, director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission. Gherardi's agency maintains an active relationship with its constituency and the Caltrans district staff. Better leadership at the state level may also be forthcoming, added Bickert. "The fact that the TE coordinator in Sacramento, who had worked alone, now has two staff members is a good step. And though it remains to be seen, it appears that [new Caltrans Director] Jeff Morales has some good ideas." Still, while our planning institutions deal with the expanded universe of transportation as defined in ISTEA/TEA-21, we may need work harder to convince the horse that it is indeed thirsty. Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.