The Safe Routes to School National Partnership, along with a number of coalition partners, has offered a petition to increase the amount of funding for California’s Active Transportation Program (ATP). Information on the petition is at Safe Routes to School California and California Walks. What follows is not intended to discourage you from signing the petition. Rather, I’m suggesting that it doesn’t go far enough.
The petition asks for an increase of $100 million per year in funding. With the existing funding of about $120M, this would be just less than double the current funding, a not insignificant increase.
However, the amount is a tiny fraction the roughly $28 billion spent yearly on transportation in California. The majority of this expenditure is through Caltrans, and the majority of that is to expand the highway and road network. Those expenditures work directly against the goal of walkable, livable communities. Yes, expansions often now include some sidewalks and some bicycle facilities, but the preponderance of the project is not on these afterthoughts, but on increasing lane miles by extending and widening highways and roadways. Of the money expended on the road transportation system, about half comes from cities, counties and regions, about one-quarter from the federal government, and about one-quarter from the state. But because the state controls the federal and state portion, and state standards determine or strongly influence how the rest is spent, things must change at the state level.
Marketing for the petition includes: “Nearly $800 million in shovel-ready walking, bicycling and Safe Routes to School projects and programs were left unfunded in the first ATP awards cycle.” I imagine now that many agencies have started to figure out how ATP works, there will be even more applications this cycle, with an even bigger gap between applications and available funding. So would the addition of $100 million really make much of a difference? We have a long term deficit in active transportation of trillions of dollars. $100 million is not that significant.
The graphic below shows the portion of the state transportation budget (in red) going to the ATP program (in green) and which would be added (blue) if the petition resulted in supportive legislation. You may need to squint.
We have spent trillions, maybe even into the low quadrillions, of dollars since World War II creating a transportation network focused on motor vehicles, often to the exclusion of everything else. We built neighborhood streets without sidewalks. We built arterials and collectors without sidewalks and bicycle facilities. We tore apart communities with freeways driven (pun intended) through the heart of our cities. Probably most damaging of all is that we built stroads everywhere, the Frankenstein hybrid of streets and roads that do not function well as either. If you are driving in a suburb, you are likely driving on a stroad. The fact that we are now mostly adding sidewalks, bicycle facilities, and sometimes paths does not change the fact that we have way over-invested in highways and stroads. This old model is now at a dead end (pun intended). These are not economically productive investments, and not livability productive investments.
I believe that we need to immediately stop building new road capacity and shift all transportation funding to more productive uses. These include adding sidewalks and bicycle facilities where they make sense, reconstructing stroads to local street standards (part of which can be done with paint and temporary constrictions), investing in transit/rail expansion and operations, and maintaining the rail freight network. And yes, in many cases, maintaining the highway and road network. However, the reason I don’t list this along with the rest is: 1) transportation agencies have often used the need to maintain roadways as an excuse for expansion projects; and 2) we have a highway and road network larger than is needed, and in some cases we need to remove (in the case of city-killing freeways), narrow, or downgrade the roadway to something that can be maintained on available funds in the long run. Once we have shrunk the road system to something we really need and can afford to maintain, then we can shift money to maintenance.
While our transportation funding priorities are bad enough at creating a functional transportation network, they are absolutely criminal in increasing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and therefore fueling climate change (pun intended). Transportation carbon is about 40% of carbon emissions in California, but even more could be attributed to the development and agriculture patterns that the transportation network has supported. Climate change insists that we immediately and severely curtail VMT. And that means completely shifting our budget priorities, not making incremental tweaks.
The claim is often made that much of transportation money is just not available for these progressive livability purposes. I disagree. Sometimes the change would require a change of law, but state changes laws all the time. Many times just a change of priorities is needed. All the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) could be spent on active transportation, and significant portions of the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) could as well. The federal government has shifted its own priorities and has encouraged states to spend more of the federal dollars on active transportation. Of the locally generated funds, some is constrained by bond issues which have language allocating funds to specific uses. However, many do not, and the language can be changed, and as these old road building bonds run out, we can shift to pay-as-you-go or, if appropriate, pass new bonds with more progressive purposes.
It is true that politicians would initially oppose to a significant change in transportation priorities. This is in part the ribbon cutting syndrome (politicians get recognized for big projects at which they get to cut the ribbon, not for small projects that in aggregate make a much bigger difference), and in part because it is what they are familiar and comfortable with. That is why the effort must focus on two issues which are important to politicians:
- The economic return on investment from different transportation alternatives. New highway projects simply do not show any significant return, those times are in the past. Induced traffic and maintenance issues mean that every new lane mile is a drain on the economy, and
- The health of their constituents (the voters, not the campaign funders) depends upon us shifting our priorities in a dramatic way.
The partnership behind the petition sounds great, starting with a significant coalition and having grown already. But, that means all the likely voices have signed onto the moderate proposal, and there is no one left to push for the progressive path. The only organizations I don’t see on the list, and I don’t know their position, are ClimatePlan, 350.org and The Sierra Club, but all seem to be focused on energy sources and not the demand from transportation.
So, where does that leave the petition? I see the petition as consistent with the general approach in California by active transportation advocates to compromise first and then negotiate. This is seen as being practical, supported by the idea that we could never get the legislature to pass what we know is really needed. I disagree. Politics is a process of compromise through negotiation. If you go into the negotiation with the middle of the road position, you will lose ground and end up with something much closer the the position of the other side. I can assure you that the car lobby is not at the legislature offering a moderate position.
You can’t win and you can’t break even.
You can’t get out of the game.
You shouldn’t stay but you ain’t leavin’
‘Cos your luck may change again.
The Dealer (Down and Losing) by Bob Ruzicka (sung by Judy Collins on True Stories and Other Dreams)
Each of the paragraphs above could be expanded into a blog post of its own, and I hope to do that eventually. One very important issue not addressed is how much of the cap-and-trade (SB 375) funding should go to active transportation.