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California Needs to Put its Money Where its Mouth Is on Public Transportation

Unless the governor and Legislature address flaws in the way the state develops public transit projects, California’s climate-related goals cannot be realized.

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CalMatters
PUBLISHED MAY 24, 2022 12:00 A.M.
The Hanford Viaduct, the largest structure of the High Speed Rail project currently under construction, will span more than a mile in length.
The Hanford Viaduct, the largest structure of the High Speed Rail project currently under construction, will span more than a mile in length. Courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority   Public Domain

By JEFF MORALES, special to CalMatters

Decades of federal and state transportation policy and funding have focused primarily on the automobile — and the roads and highways needed for us to get around in them. While this focus produced many benefits, it also ignored or created significant problems, such as greenhouse gas emissions, a key driver of climate change. Today, half of all greenhouse gas emissions in California come from transportation.

Agencies and processes have been built to support this focus.  Caltrans and regional transportation agencies receive federal and state funds not only to build and maintain, but also to develop highway and road improvements — doing the planning, public engagement, preliminary design, environmental and other work needed to get projects ready. It can take years for major projects to make it through the approvals required before construction can start. Significant resources are dedicated to this annually, and there are statewide structures in place to carry it out. It is necessary work in order to have a pipeline of projects ready to be implemented when funding becomes available.

No parallel system is in place for public transit and rail projects, however.

Much of this structural disconnect flows down from decades of federal policy and funding constraints. For the most part, public transit and rail improvements are a series of one-off projects, with local agencies on the hook to develop and advance them. Unless the governor and Legislature address this, California’s ambitious climate-related goals for increased public transit and rail will not be realized. If the state wants to change the outcomes, then it is vital that it change the processes and funding that produce the outcomes.

California has recognized the need to move away from our heavy reliance on cars and toward a more balanced transportation system. In the last decade, the state has taken important steps to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, including through creation of the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP), funded through the cap-and-trade program. Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued executive orders calling for the state to use its funding to create a shift in transportation and has proposed boosting funding for TIRCP with surplus funds.

For all the progress, an important problem hasn’t been addressed: the disconnect between statewide policy goals and funding structures. The lack of dedicated funding and structures to develop transit and rail projects — as compared with the well-established funding for highways — particularly undermines our ability to make systemic, strategic investments that can have broad, statewide benefits.

Significant state resources are going into transit and rail. But the “C” in TIRCP stands for “Capital” — meaning construction. State law effectively limits the use of TIRCP funds to the construction of greenhouse gas-reducing projects — those that local agencies have been able to advance to readiness. The restriction means that the state is not able to support the growth of a pipeline of projects that can result in  meaningful change — especially major transformative projects that maximize the reduction of greenhouse gases.

For example, both the state and the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission have identified a new transbay rail crossing as a critical investment for Northern California to meet both mobility and climate goals. But neither has ongoing dedicated funding to plan and develop that project, as they would for a major highway improvement. As a result, local agencies — in this case BART and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority — are left to track down and secure funding to advance a state and regional priority project. Ironically, once a project like this gets through the planning and development process, funding for actual construction is more readily available.

Read more of ‘California Needs to Put its Money Where its Mouth Is on Public Transportation’ on CalMatters.

Jeff Morales, managing principal with InfraStrategies LLC, is the former CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority and former director of the California Department of Transportation.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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