A Boring Post About Transportation Policy

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Traffic

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in eight years of blogging, it’s that if you want anyone to read your stuff, don’t write about transportation issues. My 2008 posts examining the Transportation Agency for Monterey County’s failed efforts to pass a transportation sales tax measure remain, by a considerable margin, the least popular pages on this site. Last month’s post about current water levels in South County reservoirs got more page views in a few days than transportation-related posts get in years.

Which is too bad, since transportation policy is even more hamstrung by narrow-minded self-interest, even more fraught with complex intrigue, and even more hampered by comical incompetence, than water policy.

Transportation policy is also a lot simpler than water policy. You get the transportation system you build.

If you spend billions of dollars on car-serving infrastructure and practically nothing on pedestrian, bicycle, bus or train infrastructure then, guess what? Cars will usually be the most convenient, if not the only practical, way to get where you’re going.

Cars will, in fact, become so much more convenient than other modes of transportation that millions of people will become convinced, find it self-evident even, that convenience is part of the intrinsic nature of cars. Unmoved by the crippling expense, the death toll, or the damage to human health, land, water, air and the climate, these people will then argue that spending transportation money on anything other than car-serving infrastructure is a waste, because cars will always remain the only serious transportation choice.

Here’s how it works: There’s a place I regularly need to go. It’s 22 miles from home. It takes about an hour and a half to drive there and back. To go by bus would take three busses each way for a total of about six hours travel time. I could do it in less than three hours total on my bike, but for much of the way I’d be on the edge of a dangerous highway, including crossing a shoulderless freeway bridge where I’d need to share the lane with cars doing 70 mph and upwards. Then I’d arrive at a destination that provides acres and acres of parking for cars (at public expense), yet lacks any form of secure bike storage.

How different might this be if there were dedicated bike paths over most of this route, or if the busses ran every 15 or 20 minutes and could bypass traffic in dedicated express lanes?

Another place I regularly go is only a couple of miles from home. There is no feasible way to travel there by bus, but it’s so close I can easily walk. In fact, I do walk once in a while, especially during car week, when the roads are so congested that walking is actually faster.

But here’s the thing: The walk is really, really unpleasant. Unless I take a detour that adds almost a mile and hundreds of feet of elevation gain, I have to walk along the shoulder of a freeway, cross another shoulderless highway bridge and, finally, face a dangerous intersection lacking crosswalks or any accommodation for pedestrians whatsoever.

How different might this be with even a simple sidewalk and crosswalk? Or regular bus service?

The sad fact is that while millions have been spent making it convenient to drive that two miles, not one dime has been spent making it convenient to walk.

This is a choice. You get the transportation system you build.

“Yes,” you may be saying, “but aren’t roads paid for by gas tax and registration fees. Don’t drivers, unlike pedestrians and cyclists, pay for their own infrastructure?”

No.

While there was a time, back in the 1960s, when gas taxes and user fees covered better than 70% of spending on California roads (and remember that, while roads are the major, they are by no means the only, type of car-serving infrastructure we all pay for), this percentage has steadily declined over the years. The hide-bound conservatives at the Tax Foundation estimate that, by 2010, fuel taxes and other user fees covered only 22.7% of California’s road spending. Inflation and increasing fuel efficiency have depressed gas tax revenues still further in the years since. Just a few months ago, the California Transportation Commission announced that transportation funding will be cut by a whopping 38% this year due to declining gas tax revenues.

Back in the 1980s, when the declining value of the gas tax began to be acutely felt, the California Legislature might have chosen to raise needed transportation funds by taxing gas more heavily. Alternatively, they might have raised income taxes to fill the gap. Instead, they avoided these politically unpopular moves by declaring that if people wanted transportation projects they would have to tax themselves to pay for them.

This is done on a county by county basis by passing a temporary sales tax increase designated for funding a specific list of projects. Counties that have succeeded in passing such measures are called “self-help” counties.

There are problems with this approach. Sales tax is perhaps the least fair way to pay for transportation infrastructure, as it is neither related to use, like gas taxes, tolls and fares, nor linked to ability to pay, like a progressive income tax. Moving the burden away from users also reduces the incentive to drive less and buy more fuel efficient vehicles. Choosing project lists through election on a county by county basis forces locals to pay more than their share to fix regional bottlenecks (like Highway 101) that are really state-wide problems, and forces transportation agencies to select projects based on popularity and avoidance of controversy, rather than on good planning principles and actual need.

The biggest problem, though, is that becoming a self-help county is extremely difficult. Since the early 1990s, when a two-thirds vote requirement was imposed, only four new counties have managed to join the sixteen counties that got into the self-help club when only a majority vote was required. The Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC) has tried four times now without success.

This leads to some serious inequities. By bringing transportation dollars of their own to the table, self-help counties put themselves in a much better position to compete for scarce state and federal transportation grants. Self-help counties, in other words, not only have more of their own money, they get more of everyone else’s money, as well.

The problem transportation agencies, like TAMC, face is that getting two-thirds of voters to agree on anything is difficult, and getting two-thirds of voters to agree to raise taxes is exponentially more difficult. Since any organized opposition virtually guarantees failure, agencies have to square the circle by coming up with plans that please everyone from environmentalists to industry to developers. There’s a reason why the annual award given by the Self-Help Counties Coalition is called, and I’m not making this up, the Sisyphus Award.

TAMC tried unsuccessfully to get Monterey County into the self-help club in 1992, 1998, 2006 and 2008. They will try for the fifth time this November, as will many other transportation agencies around the state. Presidential election years are favored for this kind of thing because in Presidential elections the votes of he anti-tax-of-any-kind-and-wish-I-lived-in-third-world-conditions-in-a-failed-state crowd, who in spite of their distaste for government always turn up at the polls, are most diluted by the votes of those who only vote when the spirit moves them, but who are more open to the idea of socialist institutions (like public roads, schools, fire departments, and so on).

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When it comes to transportation planning in California, Presidential Election years are the time when the malleable rubber of transportation project fantasy meets the rock-hard road of electoral reality. This is because Presidential Elections are when counties around the state that haven’t yet attained the holy grail of becoming self-help counties, go back to the voters and try once again to obtain that elusive two-thirds majority.

So what does it take to get two-thirds of the voters to vote for one of these measures? And what does this have to do with choosing to build transportation infrastructure that doesn’t disadvantage everything but cars?

I’m glad you asked.

An analysis conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley concluded that significant support for alternative modes of transportation can contribute to a measure’s success. In spite of the vocal minority that disparages alternative modes, the average voter is, it turns out, actually more inclined to build a sane transportation system than the average public official. This means that, up to a point anyway, money designated for things like transit, bicycle and pedestrian improvements can boost a measure’s chances of success. Marin County, for example, succeeded in becoming a self-help county by passing a measure that earmarked 55% for busses and less than 25% for car-related projects.

Monterey County’s past experience is consistent with these findings. TAMC’s 2006 measure, which earmarked 87% of funds for roads, failed miserably with only 57% of the vote, while the 2008 attempt, which upped bus-related transit funding to 20%, with an additional 3% for bicycle and pedestrian projects, nearly succeeded with 62% of the vote. In fact, if TAMC hadn’t angered rail buffs and environmentalists by agreeing to a Farm Bureau demand that they remove a small amount of rail funding (which would have paid to extend Caltrain service to Salinas), the measure might well have passed.

So has the TAMC Board, which consists of Monterey County’s Supervisors and Mayors, or their designees, strengthened this year’s measure by restoring rail funding and, maybe, boosting transit, bike and pedestrian spending by a few percentage points?

No.

They haven’t included a dime of funding for any kind of rail and they are actually promoting this year’s tax measure with the claim that, fully 87% of the $600 million it’s expected to raise over the next 30 years will be spent on roads, and only 13%, on things like busses, vanpools, safe routes to schools and a mixed use pedestrian and bike trail.

In spinning the measure to the public in this way, TAMC seems to be trying to make it look even more car-focused than is actually the case. $15 million of the “road” money, for example, is designated for a rapid bus corridor along Highway One, and other road projects include significant bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

So what makes TAMC think the environmental community will support a measure they themselves are actively promoting as being worse than the one environmentalists rejected in 2008?

Apparently, the TAMC Board believes environmentalists will be so stoked about the $20 million (whittled down from $25 million at the last moment) being put toward a mixed use bike and pedestrian trail looping through Ft. Ord from Seaside to Marina that they’ll overlook things like lack of rail funding, reduced bus funding, and lack of funding for critical pedestrian and bike links.

TAMC is essentially offering environmentalists (defined as anyone who recognizes the necessity of moving toward a more balanced transportation system) a down payment on a path that, while clearly a worthy project, is more a recreational trail than a transportation link, in exchange for their support of a plan that would put off, for at least 30 years, any hope of significant movement toward a less car centered transportation system.

How the environmental community will react to this remains to be seen. It may not matter, though, as TAMC clearly did not anticipate the degree to which proposing to spend money on a trail would infuriate other stakeholders. Monterey County Herald reporter, Jim Johnson’s tweets from the March 23, 2016, meeting, where the TAMC Board approved the list of projects for this year’s sales tax measure, tell the story:

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In other words, even though the 2016 measure is more car-centric than the 2008 measure, which the Taxpayers Association supported, they apparently find the trail funding so irritating that they will not support the 2016 measure. The Farm Bureau, meanwhile, can’t make up their minds. They like the lack of rail funding, presumably, and they must appreciate the inclusion of $360 million for “local road and street maintenance, including farm roads;” but find it hard to stomach a trail. Perhaps the Hospitality Association doesn’t think the trail will be enough of a tourist attraction.

One can’t help but feel for Del Rey Oaks Mayor, Jerry Edelen, as he tries to reason with the unreasonable. He hates spending $20 million on a trail as much as they do, but getting a two-thirds vote ain’t easy. There must be compromise. Is a measly 3% really too much to pay to get the thing passed?

In any case, it sure looks like TAMC’s road to November is going to be rough. Maybe even San Juan Grade rough (and local cyclists know what that means). So what happens next?

Will the Taxpayers Association, Farm Bureau and Hospitality Association sober up?

Will environmentalists take the bait?

Only the select few who actually read posts and news stories about transportation issues will ever know.

The rest will just wonder why our transportation options never improve and why we continue to behave as though a climate catastrophe isn’t unfolding all around us.

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Portland’s new Tilikum Crossing Bridge accommodates pedestrians, bicycles, light rail, and busses, but not cars. It has made alternative transportation modes more convenient than cars for many people.

Remember:

You get the transportation system you build.

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3 Responses to A Boring Post About Transportation Policy

  1. Janet Brennan says:

    My analysis of the measure shows that 60% of the funding will go to the cities and the County for maintenance and repair and will not be available for capacity increasing projects except for a bypass through Soledad to the the Pinnacles. While this is just a dent in the deferred maintenance requirements (e.g., the County has over $2 billion of deferred maintenance), it is far more than provided in past efforts. The initiative would also allocate 16% of the funding for alternative transportation projects, and this percentage does not include projects that could be funded with the 60% referenced above. This is a significant change from past efforts as well.

  2. xasauan says:

    I agree. As mentioned in the post, in saying that 87% is going to roads, TAMC is downplaying the amount going to alternative transportation projects. Add the $15 million for the rapid bus corridor that they list as a road project, rather than as a “Mobility for All” project, to the $80 million Mobility for All budget and you push the alternative projects total from 13% to 16%. The 2008 proposal, on the other hand, designated more like 23% to alternative projects.

  3. Janet Brennan says:

    Some positive aspects of this effort compared to the 2008 measure is the allocation of 60% of the funds to the County and cities for local road maintenance and repair. The funds cannot be used for capacity increasing projects but can be used for bike paths, pedestrian facilities, roundabout, etc. (One exception is for a capacity-increasing project for the bypass to the Pinnacles through Soledad) This percentage compares to 25% for the 2008 effort. Given the huge backlog of deferred maintenance (e.g., over $2 billion for the County alone), this distribution addresses a major problem.

    About 16% of the funds under the current proposal are for alternative transportation projects. This percentage does not account for projects that could be funded from the 60% noted above. The rest of the funds are for highway projects, except for 1% allocated to habitat conservation. The 2008 measures allocated 50% of the funds for highway projects with a majority of it for the Highway 156 project.

    This measure is for $600 million over 30 years. The 2008 measures was for $1 billion over 25 years.

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