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Is the CA Transportation Commission Slow-Walking Climate Action on Transportation Investments?

5:25 PM PDT on October 20, 2021

Art by KC Green

This summer, the California State Transportation Agency released the state's Climate Action for Transportation Infrastructure (CAPTI), aimed at guiding state transportation decisions towards climate-positive investments.

Despite dire warnings urging quick action on climate, however, not everyone is on board with the plan. The California Transportation Commission, which is in charge of making decisions about transportation investments, are divided about it, even though commissioners unanimously adopted CAPTI by resolution in August.

And a group of climate, transportation, and equity advocates have charged that the CTC is deliberately slow-walking the adoption of needed changes, according to remarks made by its staff.

More information can be found here, but basically CAPTI acknowledges the important role of transportation planning and infrastructure in the fight against climate change and sets up a plan for shifting resources towards more sustainable and cleaner options.

Its recommendations include prioritizing alternatives to single-occupant vehicles and improving transit and electric vehicle infrastructure.

Since transportation contributes more than half of the state's greenhouse gas emissions, the state has to find a way to tackle those emissions, so CAPTI calls for reprioritizing transportation investments.

But some commissioners have bristled at what they say is a "raid" on highway funding and have warned it would break "promises made to the voters under S.B. 1" if CAPTI were to shift any highway funding to other transportation modes.

Climate advocacy organizations met with CTC staff to discuss CAPTI and find out how its principles will be incorporated into its planning going forward, including in ongoing and upcoming updates to S.B. 1 funding guidelines. These guidelines help shape what projects are eligible for state funding under programs such as the Solutions for Congested Corridors, the Active Transportation Program, and the State Transportation Improvement Program.

The climate advocates came away from the meeting with the clear impression that CTC staff "is planning on slow-walking the implementation of CAPTI, if it plans to do so at all," according to a letter [PDF] they sent to the Commission in September. CTC staff "is certainly not operating with the sense of urgency that our climate, equity and public health challenges demand or with the sense of commitment to solving these challenges expressed publicly by the Commission," they wrote.

At the meeting, a staff member told them that not only was the CTC planning to go slowly on incorporating climate and equity into its programs, but that the "CTC was not responsible for the climate, health and equity outcomes of its funding decisions, as all the responsibility lay with the project sponsors in local government."

"This is not acceptable," the letter pointed out.

While no official response has been received from the CTC yet, several signatories of the letter said that their supervisors received phone calls from CTC Executive Director Mitch Weiss, who told them that the letter was "unprofessional" and "inappropriate." Several sources described the phone calls as "strange," saying they got the impression it was an attempt to get the signers in trouble - although their job as advocates is to hold the state accountable for its plans and pledges on climate and equity.

CTC Chair Hilary Norton told Streetsblog that an official response is forthcoming. "We... have been working with the authors of the letter in numerous ways since we received it," she wrote. "In that same timeframe, CTC Commissioners and staff have participated in and conducted Equity Roundtable meetings, S.B. 1 program guidelines meetings, and our CTC meetings of October 13th and 14th — all which involved implementation of CAPTI — and have been delighted that the authors of the letter have been a meaningful part of these meetings."

At the CTC meeting last week, staff said they have yet to determine how to fit the CAPTI recommendations into the agendas of current workshops to update S.B. 1 guidelines.

"We're always going to be a cycle behind on the details of developing methods" to meet state goals, CTC Executive Director Mitch Weiss told the Commission. "Our goal is to give people tools and help us answer questions."

The letter from advocates strongly urged quicker action, consistent with the Commissioners' unanimous resolution to adopt CAPTI.

"We cannot wait until future [funding] cycles to address our climate, equity, and public health needs," they wrote. "In recent STIP guidelines, CAPTI strategies were cherry-picked and barely sprinkled throughout the guidelines. This was done under the guise that CAPTI had not been implemented and adopted at the release of the guidelines. That type of passive thinking is reckless and misguided," they warned.

"We need the CTC to be forward-thinking about the kind of investments you are making, boldly driving climate, equity, and public health outcomes."

The letter was signed by a number of advocacy organizations working at the intersection of climate, transportation, and equity, among them ClimatePlan, Safe Routes Partnership, SPUR, TransForm, Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, NextGen California, Coalition for Clean Air, Active San Gabriel Valley, and others.

Read the letter in full here [PDF].

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