55% threshold for transportation maintenance

State Senator Scott Wiener has introduced SCA 6, a constitutional amendment that would change the threshold for transportation measures from 2/3 (67%) to 55%. While I understand the desire to make funding of transportation easier, I am also scared by possible outcomes. The Sacramento County Measure B would have passed under this new threshold, but it failed with 65% when 67% was required. Measure B was chock full of bad projects, including Capital Southeast Connector (a new freeway), widening of Capital City Freeway, new interchanges throughout the county (mostly to serve new and planned greenfield developments), and additional road widening and extension. It also had some good things, such as fix-it-first and light rail car replacement with low-floor/level boarding cars.

I am concerned that if this amendment were adopted, there would just be more and more investment in the same old infrastructure solutions that got us into this mess in the first place, and still less dedicated to what we really need for the time being, which is maintenance.

It is understandable that Senator Wiener supports a lower threshold. In the bay area which he represents, the public supports transit and active transportation, and wants more investment in these modes. Same is true of southern California, at least Los Angeles county (Metro). But in Sacramento and other cities, and the rural counties, there is low support for transit, walking and bicycling. These places will probably continue to fund more motor vehicle travel to the detriment of other modes.

So, I’d like to propose that the amendment for 55% threshold cover only maintenance. Maintenance doesn’t mean just roadways and bridges, which are important, but transit buses and light rail cars and track, and sidewalks. I’m not sure about complete streets. There are some good complete streets projects, but there are also projects that have increased motor vehicle capacity, not addressed distance between safe crossing, and not reduced speed limits to match the new roadway. Those are not really complete streets projects, and I think until we have standards or performance measures for complete streets, which are enforced on all levels of government, we have to consider complete streets as NOT being maintenance. However, when a roadway is repaved, it can and should be considered for roadway width re-allocation to uses such as bike lanes and transit lanes.

Governments at the state, regional, county and city level have for a long time advertised transportation funding as going to keep our roads, and the rest of our transportation system, in good condition. But when it comes to spending, it almost all goes to new construction instead, which exacerbates the problem because then we have yet more infrastructure to maintain, and less money to do it with.

I think new infrastructure projects should require a higher level of support, and I think that 2/3 (67%) is a good threshold. I realize that this would include not only roadways but transit as well, and I’m fine with that. Transit that is not well designed and justified by ridership is almost as bad as new roads. A higher threshold provides a chance to stop bad transit along with bad roads.

Having a different threshold for maintenance and new infrastructure would also in many cases cause governments to separate maintenance measures from infrastructure measures. Once separated, voters can better judge the utility of each measure and investment. I suspect maintenance measures would pass easily, and many infrastructure measures would not pass, and that is a good thing, at least initially. Governments would have to go back to the drawing board and develop a plan for actually meeting community needs with new infrastructure, rather than just doing more of the same and hoping for different results. In this case, doing more of the same means new roads, and hoping for different results means hoping for congestion reduction. We know it doesn’t work that way.

So, 55% for maintenance, and 2/3 for infrastructure.

2 thoughts on “55% threshold for transportation maintenance

  1. You do realize that more than half of state transportation spending is on maintenance right? Where are you getting this notion that “But when it comes to spending, it almost all goes to new construction instead”?
    For example, in 2015-16, we spent $1.3 billion on local assistance (local sales taxes for local projects), $1.8 billion on maintenance and repair projects that do not add capacity (SHOPP) and only $866 million on highway expansion projects (STIP). We actually do spend most of our transportation funding on maintenance, at least for state-derived revenues. Check out the CTC’s 2016 fund estimate for source.


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