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Freeways Take Right-Of-Way For Transportation Funding

If anything has become clear during the months since voters approved a $19.9 billion transportation bond last November, it's that freeways are still king. The first $4.5 billion allocated by the California Transportation Commission (CTC) was aimed solely at roads, mostly for expanding freeway capacity. Another $3 billion for pavement — including $1 billion for Highway 99 — is scheduled for allocation by June.

Proposition 1B did include money for projects other than highways and roads, specifically $4 billion for public transit, $3 billion for trade corridors and related air improvements, and $1 billion for transit system safety, security and disaster response. Because of the way state lawmakers and Gov. Schwarzenegger drafted Proposition 1B, however, public transit and rail monies are likely to make it out the door much slower than funds for pavement.

In fact the governor's budget proposes slashing annual funding for the Public Transportation Account (PTA) in 2007-08 by $1.1 billion, and backfilling with $600 million in bond funds, according to a state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee analysis. The governor proposes to dedicate another $700 million in bonds over the following two fiscal years to the PTA, which provides operations and transit capital. The money pulled out of the PTA would be shifted to an account for highway rehabilitation and safety projects – a demonstration of pavement's current political superiority.

Proposition 1B's $4 billion for transit included $400 million specifically for intercity rail programs, including $125 million for passenger cars and locomotives. The governor's budget for 2007-08 proposes no funding for intercity rail from bond revenues.

Transit advocates contend the governor's proposal subverts the will of voters, who thought Proposition 1B would fund new light rail lines, buses and other public transit. Slashing general fund expenditures for the PTA would have "overwhelmingly negative implications" for transit riders, said Josh Shaw, executive director of the California Transit Association. Lawmakers have expressed concern about the administration's transit funding strategy, but the administration notes that the budget designates the PTA's $600 million in bond funding specifically for transit capital improvements.

This recent round of allocations from Proposition 1B's $4.5 billion for "corridor mobility" demonstrated that political muscle is essential. Local transportation agencies had submitted requests for $11.3 billion worth of highway and road projects. The CTC staff recommended funding $2.8 billion worth of those projects — setting off furious rounds of lobbying by local officials and state lawmakers whose projects were left out. In the end, the CTC allocated all $4.5 billion available.

About one-sixth of that funding ($730 million) was awarded for a single, 10-mile carpool lane on the 405 freeway from Interstate 10 to the 101 freeway. Staff initially rejected the 405 project, but Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and numerous other elected officials pressed hard for the project on one of the states' most congested freeways. Meanwhile, projects without similar big-name political backing – including a $177 million Highway 101 bypass in the Mendocino County town of Willits, $85 million for new bridges over I-10 in Fontana, and $28 million for a freeway bypass in the Imperial County city of Brawley — were cut at the last minute by the CTC.

A 2002 state law (AB 857) requires the governor to prepare a five-year infrastructure plan based on promoting infill, protecting environmental and agricultural resources, and encouraging efficient development patterns. Schwarzenegger has never submitted such a plan, and AB 857 did not appear to factor into the CTC's spending.

Since December, legislators have introduced more than 20 bills addressing Proposition 1B implementation, even though the proposition's language appears to give discretion over most of the $19.9 billion to the administration — and the governor's office has been making moves to dictate how much of the remainder would be spent. The proposed budget bill, for example, would permit the administration to transfer Proposition 1B funds among various programs without legislative approval.

Of course, all of the bond expenditures are subject to legislative approval through either the annual budget process or other legislation. And, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, lawmakers do have specific discretion over $5.1 billion designated for goods movement, air quality improvements related to goods movement, transit security and disaster response, port security and a state-local partnership program. In addition, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez is carrying AB 901, which would provide criteria for distributing the $4 billion in transit money.

During a joint committee hearing in March, Senate Transportation and Housing Committee Chairman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) made clear that goods movement projects should be selected based on their environmental performance. Transportation officials should not expand capacity and then rely solely on mitigation to offset the impacts of the expanded capacity.
Earlier this year, the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and the state Environmental Protection Agency finalized a goods movement action plan. It basically represents the administration's proposal for spending the $2 billion in Proposition 1B for trade corridors. While the plan emphasizes the need to reduce impacts of goods movement on public health, the plan appears to rely primarily on mitigation and would not use environmental impact as a major project funding criteria.

During the hearing, lawmakers specifically focused on air pollution from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. According to the Air Resources Board, about 75% of diesel particulate matter — which accounts for 70% of the cancer risk in polluted air — comes from goods movement. The two Southern California ports are the state's hot spot, and activity is expanding rapidly. A consensus emerged during the hearing that, although it could ease congestion, simply providing more capacity for standard trucks and trains will not suffice. Alternatives to diesel-powered trucks, trains and ships are needed.

"Environmental money and infrastructure projects need to be linked," Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster told senators at the joint hearing. "We cannot just keep building larger and larger corridors and expect the environment to improve."

South Coast Air Quality Management District Executive Director Barry Wallerstein spoke of "a health crisis" caused by fine particulate pollution, which causes 5,400 people in the region to die prematurely every year.

Proposition 1B does include a separate $1 billion for reducing air emissions from goods movement. Air Resources Board Chairman Robert Sawyer said that money should go where air pollution is the worst and goods traffic is the highest — which means urban Southern California.

Resources:
Legislative Analyst's Office transportation funding study: www.lao.ca.gov/analysis.aspx?year=2007&chap=1&toc=1
Senate Transportation and Housing Committee reports: www.senate.ca.gov/ftp/SEN/COMMITTEE/STANDING/TRANSPORTATION/_home/

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