CA Transportation Choices Summit Tackles Policy Issues

The California Transportation Choices Summit, held in Sacramento this week, was an opportunity for sustainable transportation and public health advocates to spend the day learning about current state policies and legislation in the works to change them.

Christopher Cabaldon, Mayor of West Sacramento, discusses bike infrastructure on a pre-summit bike tour along the Sacramento River. Photos: Melanie Curry

This year’s summit was titled “2014: A Year of Opportunity.” The “opportunity” comes in the form of new funds from cap-and-trade and current discussions in the legislature about how to spend that money. As Streetsblog has reported, these funds are required to be spent on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which could include projects that encourage walking, bicycling, and transit.

The annual summit is hosted by TransForm and a long list of partners across the state including ClimatePlan, MoveLA, Circulate San Diego, the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership, National Resources Defense Council, and the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. In addition to discussing current policies, the learning day prepared attendees for TransForm’s “Advocacy Day,” in which participants meet with State Assembly members and their staff to talk about the issues that matter most to them and push for legislation.

Summit speakers laid out facts about funding, discussed trade-offs between spending on different programs, and urged everyone to share their personal stories about why their issue is important. “Let’s pull those heart strings,” said Elyse Lowe of Circulate San Diego, “so we can do a better job advocating for good transportation policies.”

Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, created an “applause-o-meter” to gauge summit attendees’ views on trade-offs between funding categories. He asked participants to applaud for the categories of activities they thought were most important: planning; bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure; transportation demand management programs like shuttles, carpool programs, and guaranteed ride home programs; affordable homes near transit; and transit capital and operating costs.

The audience, mostly comprised of savvy transportation advocates, applauded for all of these categories, although there two clear “winners”: affordable homes near transit and transit capital and operating costs. These also were the most expensive categories, according to Cohen’s estimate of how much it would cost to fully fund needs in these areas: $6 billion for transit and $1 to $1.5 billion for housing.

Senator Kevin DeLeon delivers keynote speech at the Transportation Choices Summit.

Megan Kirkeby of the California Housing Partnership laid out the reasons this affordable housing near transit is so important. As demand for city living increases, especially areas in cities that are well-served by transit, low-income people are being priced out of them. “Low-income households that live near transit,” she said, “are four times more likely to take transit than well-off households. And they are five times less likely to own a car.” So, she argued, simply building denser housing near transit won’t be enough to help California meet its GHG emission goals under the Global Warming Solutions Act; affordable housing must be included in the equation. “By displacing low-income households from transit-oriented developments,” she said, “we risk losing the GHG reductions we seek.”

Other speakers explained the link between low-income groups and state transportation goals, including Vien Truong of the Greenlining Institute, who pointed out that more people die from transportation related pollution than from traffic crashes. It’s not just a matter of climate change goals, but simply of air quality, where the poorest in the state are subject to the worst air quality and are paying the price with their health.

Autumn Bernstein of ClimatePlan spoke about the amount of money currently being spent on transportation in the state every year, and wondered if it was being spent in the right ways. She estimates that the state plans to spend a total of $80 billion on highway expansion in the next ten years, an amount dwarfs the funds devote to transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and affordable housing combined.

“The question we need to ask is: how do we look for ways to solve congestion problems other than highway expansion?” said Bernstein. She referred to Caltrans’ 2010 report (neglected by the agency) “Smart Mobility,” which said that highway expansions should be seen as a last resort, after all other solutions have been tried, rather than a first response to traffic congestion.

Current legislation and policy discussed at the summit included:

  • S.B. 391, the Homes and Jobs Act, which would create a permanent source of funds for affordable housing. Megan Kirkeby pointed out that with the end of redevelopment and cuts in federal housing grants almost all funding for affordable housing has disappeared in the last few years. The bill passed the Senate last year and is currently in the Assembly appropriations committee file.
  • S.B. 1275 from Senator Kevin DeLeon, who was the keynote speaker at the summit. This bill’s goals are to increase low-income people’s access to incentives for replacing polluting vehicles with zero- and low-emission vehicles. It includes a “mobility option,” currently defined as rideshare or carshare, as a substitute for vehicle replacement. This bill is currently set for a hearing on April 30 in the Senate’s Committee on Environmental Quality.
  • Caltrans reform: Kate White, the California Transportation Agency’s Deputy Secretary for Environmental Policy and Housing Coordination, brought the summit to a close with an inspiring speech describing California’s future transportation system, with quick, easy, clean-energy connections across the state. Pointing out that car dependency is linked to health problems and poverty, she said “the stars are aligning” for Caltrans to become the agency that can lead the way to a sustainable transportation system, rather than the continuing to pursue its longstanding car-oriented priorities.