Decades of federal and state transportation policies and funding have focused primarily on the automobile — and the roads and highways needed to get us there.
While this focus has produced many benefits, it has also ignored or created significant issues, 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 created to support this direction. Caltrans and regional transportation agencies receive federal and state funds not only to build and maintain, but also to develop highway and road improvements – do the planning, public engagement, preliminary design, environmental and other work necessary to prepare the projects.
It can take years for major projects to get the required approvals before construction can begin. Significant resources are devoted to it every year, and statewide structures are in place to carry it out. It is necessary work to have a pipeline of projects ready for implementation when funding becomes available.
However, there is no parallel system in place for transit and rail projects.
Much of this structural disconnect stems from decades of federal policies and funding constraints. For the most part, transit and rail improvements are a series of one-off projects, with local agencies responsible for developing and advancing them.
Unless the Governor and Legislature address this issue, California’s ambitious climate-related goals for increased transit and rail will not be met. If the state wants to change the results, it is vital that it changes the processes and the funding that produce the results.
California has recognized the need to move away from our heavy reliance on cars and embrace a more balanced transportation system. Over the past decade, the state has taken significant steps to reduce transportation-related emissions, including creating the Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP), funded by the cap and trade program. Governor Gavin Newsom issued executive orders calling on the state to use its funding to create change in transportation and proposed to increase funding for TIRCP with excess funds.
Unfortunately, there is still a disconnect between statewide policy goals and funding structures. The lack of dedicated funding and structures to develop transit and rail projects – compared to the well-established funding for highways – undermines our ability to make systemic and strategic investments that can have broad benefits across the state.
Significant state resources are devoted to public transit and rail. But state law effectively limits the use of TIRCP funds to the construction of greenhouse gas reduction projects — those that local agencies have been able to advance to readiness. The restriction means the state is unable to support the growth of a pipeline of projects that could result in significant change.
For example, the state and the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission have identified a new transbay crossing as a critical investment for Northern California to meet both mobility and climate goals. But neither has permanent funding dedicated to the planning and development of this 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 — must seek out and secure funding to advance a national and regional priority project. Ironically, once a project like this goes through the planning and development process, financing for the actual construction is more readily available.
The state can take steps to better align policy and funding, including:
• Take full advantage of recent changes to federal programs allowing funds to be used to support the development of transit and rail projects
• Invest in the resources needed to develop a pipeline of transit and rail projects, as is done for highway and road projects
• Expand eligibility of state funding programs to enable project development
• Dedicate a portion of federal and state transit and rail funding to developing a pipeline of projects.
As part of its climate change strategy, California has set visionary statewide goals for transit and rail. But he needs to dedicate resources and focus on a statewide push to achieve those goals.
Jeff Morales, CEO of InfraStrategies LLC, is the former CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority and former director of the California Department of Transportation. Distributed by CalMatters.org.