President Bush’s signature on the federal transportation bill in August opened the spigot for $21.6 billion in federal money for California. The bill funds hundreds of specific projects, ranging from a $25 million “non-motorized transportation pilot program” in Marin County to carpool lanes on the San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles to a study of a new transportation corridor between western Riverside County and Orange County. And the bill received praise from numerous California officials, including Gov. Schwarzenegger, new Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and regional transportation planners.

However, it is clear that the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users of 2005 (SAFETEA: LU) is no panacea for solving California’s infamous traffic congestion. Although the bill raises the minimum return of gas tax to each state from 90.5% to 92%, California remains a “donor state.” Additionally, some of the projects earmarked for funding are already complete or are safety retrofits, meaning that the federal dollars for those projects will do nothing to increase capacity or mobility.

In fact, the second follow-up to the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 is markedly different from its predecessors in the number of projects for which money was specifically earmarked. The bill provides money for 350 projects in California and 6,300 nationwide, thousands more than received “earmarks” in the previous transportation bills.

The earmarks raised questions about true need. For example, the nine-county Bay Area region, home to some of the country’s worst traffic congestion, received earmarks totaling $733 million. Meanwhile Kern County, which has about 10% of the Bay Area’s population, received $726 million in earmarks. The difference? House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas hails from Bakersfield. Just before Bush signed the bill, Thomas boasted to the Bakersfield Californian of the “gift to Kern County.”

The largesse heaped on Kern County did not go unnoticed by supporters of the Alameda Corridor East (ACE) project, a planned $2.5 billion rail corridor running from the Los Angeles railyards through the San Gabriel Valley to Pomona. Spurred by ongoing growth at the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, the ACE is intended to expand rail capacity and eliminate many at-grade crossings. The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) made the ACE project its top priority. At one time during the two-year debate over the transportation bill, ACE was in line to get close to $900 million. In the end, the project received $178 million, an amount that angered the area’s largely Republican congressional delegation.

The southern half of the ACE corridor also went lacking. The $600 million OnTrac project headed up by the City of Placentia received $39 million; local proponents had sought $225 million. The limited federal allocation appears to mean the end of the plan to dig a trench for the rail line through Placentia (see CP&DR Public Development, February 2005).

Still, SCAG officials were publicly upbeat about SAFETEA: LU. They noted that the ACE project did receive enough money to move forward, an I-405 carpool lane got $130 million, and expansion of the Desmond Bridge, which serves the ports, received $100 million.

“We are encouraged by the growing degree of regional cooperation,” SCAG spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said. “Historically, other regions have done a better job of getting behind one or two specific projects.”

Ellen Roundtree, director of governmental affairs for the San Diego Association of Governments, noted that the transportation bill imposes a number of new requirements for planning, mitigation and “consultation,” and places Indian tribes into the process for the first time.

“We think consultation is good, and we think public participation is good,” Roundtree said. However, what exactly Congress means by “consultation” is unclear, she said.

In other interesting twists, the transportation bill exempted the BART extension to San Jose from new Federal Transit Administration cost-effectiveness standards. The bill language helps keep the struggling project alive. In the San Bernardino County city of Rialto, the bill transferred 200 acres of federal land to the city, a move that could permit the city to close the general aviation airport. The city would like to see industrial development on the site.

For the most part, SAFETEA: LU maintains the principles of ISTEA, such as emphasizing multi-modalism, links between transportation projects and air quality, and regional decision making. The bill even increases funding for metropolitan planning organizations by 25%.

Paul Zykofsky, director of land use and transportation programs at the Local Government Commission, endorsed the bill’s provisions making “Safe Route to School” a federal program for the first time, and making permanent the Transportation, Community and System Preservation program. As a pilot project in the last transportation bill, TCSP funded innovative projects such as a study of zoning code reform in Fresno, Zykofsky said.

Still, there is an impression that the bill wrongly favors highways at a time of rapidly rising gasoline prices. Anne Canby, president of the transit-oriented Surface Transportation Policy Project, expressed disappointment “that Congress chose not to augment commitments to local decision-makers, raise transit’s share of total funding, increase eligibility for freight and passenger rail investment, improve the environment by dedicating resources to cleaning up highway runoff, and promote more walking and bicycling.”

More than anything, though, SAFETEA: LU makes clear that local agencies will have to pay for future capital improvements. SCAG spokesman Lustgarten said projections are that state and federal funds combined will pay only 25% of transportation project costs by 2030. Thus, the absence of the $470 million project to widen Interstate 5 in Los Angeles County from the list of SAFETEA: LU earmarks may be a sign of the future.