California still failing to invest in sustainable transportation choices

Tomorrow morning at 10:00 am, the California Transportation Commission (CTC) will meet in Santa Ana, Calif.  to decide which transportation projects will receive priority funding over the next five years in the State’s Transportation Improvement Program, better known as the STIP. Given recent coverage of the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI) report calling on Caltrans to better align its investments with California’s environmental goals, you might think the STIP would be an opportunity to answer the call with a diversified portfolio of investments.

Unfortunately, you would be wrong.  The $3.45 billion document being teed up for adoption this Thursday is more of the same. Of the $1.41 billion going to new projects (over $2 billion is carryover from the 2012 STIP), the STIP invests 81 percent ($1.14 billion) in road and highway projects—mostly widening them—and only 17 percent ($240 million) in transit.

And as for active transportation, just over a week ago, Caltrans’ most comprehensive household travel survey found that 18 percent of all trips in California are made by walking and biking, a near doubling since the year 2000.  On hearing these results, Malcolm Dougherty, Caltrans’ director, said Based on this research, we can make good decisions about transportation that will improve mobility, air quality, and travel choices for all Californians and make our state a better place to live and work.”

Sounds great, right? And yet the STIP proposes just 2 percent of its funding to support bicycling and walking trips. 

What’s worse—some of the projects in this plan face strong local opposition, such as the Centennial Corridor in Bakersfield, proposed to receive a $33 million allocation. This project—for which the City of Bakersfield plans to borrow a $270 million loan—would literally demolish hundreds of homes in one of Bakersfield’s most historic neighborhoods. This kind of project can hardly be what Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly had in mind when on January 30th he said “More transportation choices, efficient land use, highway preservation, sustainable movement of people and freight—these now are the order of the day.”

To be fair, neither Caltrans nor the California Transportation Commission bears full responsibility for these shortcomings. The great majority of the funds in the STIP are nominated from the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) who are charged with creating Sustainable Communities Strategies under SB 375 to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. So for a better STIP the next time around, we also need regions to put forth projects more aligned with the goals of SB 375.

Still, as the CTC debates this topic on Thursday, we hope they will commit to the following:

  • Prior to the next STIP in 2016, adopt performance measures for the STIP that support statewide sustainability, health, and equity goals, including a comprehensive reform of the development and review process for the Interregional Transportation Improvement Program (ITIP)—the piece of the STIP that is allocated by the state—as well as the Regional Transportation Improvement Programs (RTIPs).
  • Provide a forum where the California Transportation Commission can clearly communicate to the public how STIP investments are contributing to climate goals and benefitting the state, and where Californians feel empowered—from the outset of the process—to ensure that their needs are recognized through planning and investments. By making the process transparent and accessible to the average citizen, the Commission can help ensure that plans and investments accurately reflect what the public wants and needs from its transportation system. 

As the SSTI report noted, Caltrans, like other state Departments of Transportation, was organized to build a network of trunk highways linking cities—a mission which it has executed faithfully. But as the report also noted, 1972 was a long time ago. California has new priorities in statute—including the reduction of transportation sector greenhouse gas emissions (SB 375), and the development of multi-modal transportation networks (SB 743).  Rather than continue down the path of road-widening, which supports only auto travel, leads to future congestion and higher road maintenance costs, and undermines progress toward better urban and natural environments, California needs a better game plan. SB 375 has resulted in a lot of local innovation and an elevated dialogue at the regions. But we also need to pay attention to how the money is actually being allocated—the STIP is where the rubber hits the road.