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Recap of California Transportation Commission Meeting: Equity, Climate Are Major Topics

Public engagement is increasingly a concern for state transportation agencies. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

The California Transportation Commission is tasked with allocating major parts of the state's transportation funding streams. Their monthly meetings take two days to get through, and are usually endless updates about state transportation agency work, allocation decisions, and sometimes a bit of controversy.

This week's meeting was no exception. Nevertheless, a shift in the Commission's focus from previous years is notable. Instead of discussions centered on highway expansions and where to get the money for them, the Commission is engaging with climate, environmental, and equity concerns arising out of the state's transportation system.

This is in part due to the changing makeup of the commission itself, which today has more representation from environmental and equity advocates to balance out the influence of developers, labor, and others who benefited from aggressive highway building.

Whereas five years ago funding was scarce, currently money is abundant. The gas tax increase several years ago, plenty of sales tax revenue, and a lot of infrastructure funding coming from the federal government are opening up an entirely new set of problems to grapple with. That is, more money is making everything more expensive; instead of scarce funds, now labor and materials are harder to line up.

At this week's meeting, a major focus of discussion was how climate and equity goals are being incorporated into funding decisions, topics which did not receive much attention even two years ago.

Here's a selective recap of some of the discussions.

Racist Comments at L.A. City Council

Commissioner Darnell Grisby proposed a resolution, which was passed by the Commission, condemning the racist remarks made by three L.A. City Councilmembers and calling for them to resign (Nury Martinez resigned from the council later that day). Their unacceptable language, said Grisby, "serve to remind us of the real mental and psychological harms that can be caused by leaders. They know the struggle," he said of the three councilmembers, "but they took their eyes off the prize."

San Gabriel Valley E-bike Rental Program

Commissioners Michele Martinez and Hilary Norton heaped praise on the new e-bike rental program that just launched in the San Gabriel Valley. "This is the largest e-bike rental program in the U.S.," said Norton. "It was very moving to hear the Executive Director of ActiveSGV [talk] about how this would bring access to people who otherwise would never be able to afford an e-bike."

"We need to remember, when we are funding projects, we are also supporting people," she said.

Active Transportation Program (ATP)

CTC staff presented an update on the current status of the ATP [PDF]. During the first five funding cycles, over 900 projects have been funded. The status report lists all of them, including allocations, time extensions, baseline agreements, approved scope changes, and advances through the end of fiscal year 2021-22.

On October 21, staff expect to release recommendations for projects to be funded in the current Cycle 6. The list will be presented to the Commission at its December meeting.

CAPTI Update

California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) Deputy Secretary Darwin Moosavi presented a brief update on the status of work being done on recommendations from the Climate Action Plan for Transportation Investment. That update, covered by Streetsblog, was a first-year report on some of the early actions begun or completed. "Note these are not implementations," said Moosavi. "These are early actions" to get the ball rolling on incorporating climate change goals into transportation funding programs.

Commissioner Michele Martinez noted that CAPTI focuses on specific post of discretionary funding, but that there are a lot of projects "in the pipeline" that might not "meet the moment." Many of these are "legacy projects" that have been stalled in planning stages for many years while funding was sought. Now there is a lot of potential money available from various sources, including outside the purview of the Commission (such as federal and local funding), and some of those legacy projects are moving forward.

"Are we looking at this?" she asked. "How are we going to be able to give notice to people that priorities have changed; that they may need to adjust these projects?"

Moosavi responded that both CalSTA and Caltrans has been "thinking a lot about that. This is not about picking winners and losers; this is about looking for opportunities to mitigate, add scope, and adjust projects to see what makes sense."

"Note that this is not a new process," he added. "We have always had to prioritize projects; this is just a new element of complexity."

Commissioner Grisby wanted to know what the response has been from agencies applying for funding. "Are you noticing applicants are taking the opportunity to change? Or are you noticing resistance?"

Moosavi responded that his impression is that "folks are very eager and willing to see what can make projects work. At times there is frustration," he said, but also "interest and willingness to see how projects can evolve or add components or mitigation."

Nephele Barrett, representing the Rural Counties Task Force, pointed out that one of the tasks marked as "complete" in the CAPTI annual report was to meet with and gather input on CAPTI's recommendations from stakeholders in rural areas. "The CAPTI report says 'this item is complete' because we had a discussion," said Barrett, "but we think it was just a beginning."

Equity Training for Caltrans Employees

Caltrans has been providing equity training for its employees, in the form of a "21-day challenge," stemming from the idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit, according to Caltrans Director Tony Tavares. The challenge involves daily readings and reflections, aimed at helping move employees from awareness to action on equity in every aspect of their work. Tavares told the Commission it has been well received by Caltrans workers.

Equity Listening Sessions

Caltrans has been conducting "equity listening sessions" with members of the public throughout the state over the past year, with the most recent one - the sixth - taking place in the Inland Empire, co-hosted by CCAEJ. Participants expressed concerns about traffic impacts, limited access to public transit, pedestrian and bike safety - a concern that is so deep that it leads people to rely more on cars, which they may not have access to - and health and environmental harms from truck traffic. In November, Caltrans plans to release a report summarizing what they learned from all the listening sessions conducted so far.

Commissioners and staff agreed that the listening session format was not perfect. Commissioner Martinez described the sessions as too prescriptive and too short, not allowing for open-ended comments and leaving out a lot of people who had information to share. Commissioner Lyou suggested finding a way to make the sessions more interactive, saying that the "listening only" format made it "frustrating not to have an educational, informational exchange."

Commissioners and staff also agreed that six sessions was definitely not enough. "We are working with [Caltrans] districts to create ongoing sessions," said Caltrans staffmember Amar Cid, who was presenting the item. "We have requests from multiple communities to host these in their areas."

The need is to ensure an ongoing dialogue about community issues arising from transportation funding decisions.

Interagency Equity Advisory Committee

A list of seventeen potential participants - from a pool of 72 applicants - for the Intergency Equity Advisory Committee was presented and approved by the Commission [PDF]. Staff sought to achieve broad representation demographically and geographically, looking at age, race, place type, groups represented, and experience. Staff was also able to procure temporary funding to pay committee members for their time in the short term. The first committee meeting is anticipated for some time later this fall or winter.

Caltrans Transportation Equity Index (EQI)

Caltrans is developing a new data tool to help identify communities where transportation projects are likely to have a negative impact, in response to one of CAPTI's recommendations to help address inequities made worse by the transportation system.

The new Transportation Equity Index (EQI) is in the early stages of development, although Deputy Director for Sustainability Tony Dang ran through a very detailed presentation on the work that has already been done. It is somewhat similar to CalEPA's CalEnviroscreen, which uses demographic and other data to identify disadvantaged communities, but, according to Dang, the EQI is focused more specifically on transportation impacts. It compiles data on traffic exposure - volume, proximity, and crashes - access to destinations, and priority populations (low-income communities of color that have historically been negatively impacted by transportation projects) into maps that can be used by project planners.

Caltrans is looking for feedback on the tool via a generic survey, which is available at least until the end of October. Dang said they are especially hoping to get input on what types of non-works trips should be included in the data, as well as information on how agencies and others might use the data and maps. A September EQI workshop was recorded and is available, and there will be more workshops held in early 2023.

Commissioners responded to the report with some impatience. Executive Director Mitch Weiss complained that CTC staff was not invited to work on the tool. Commissioner Joseph Lyou seemed disappointed. "Based on CAPTI," he said, "I had envisioned a tool that would allow us to look at projects, to see whether they would have equity impacts or not, and to prioritize good ones."

"I see a lot of concrete ways we can influence the development of our projects," responded Dang, adding that the EQI would be paired with other, subsequent guidance. One public comment, from Lyou's organization, the Coalition for Clean Air, reiterated Lyou's point that the EQI "does not go far enough to accomplish the goal it has been set. The original purpose was to analyze equity impacts for transportation projects. We ask Caltrans and CTC to revert it back to its original goal."

Caltrans Interim System Investment Strategy (CSIS)

Another project to help Caltrans better align its project selection process with the Climate Action Plan framework is the creation of a new investment strategy, which scores transportation projects on how well they reflect CAPTI recommendations.

These will be used to make funding decisions for some of the state's discretionary funding programs, including the Active Transportation Program, the Trade Corridor Enhancement Program, Solutions for Congested Corridors Program, and some project initiation documents, which are used to evaluate potential projects. The scoring system would also increase transparency around decision making by documenting how they are made based on a clear scoring criteria.

One area that will receive particular attention is public engagement. "Much of [our past] engagement has been geared around compliance," including for CEQA and NEPA (the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Protection Act), said Marlon Flournoy, Division Chief of Caltrans Transportation Planning, who presented the item. "That's the bare minimum." The new strategy aims to go above and beyond what is required by law, in part by tying its rubric to the EQI and other data sources. "We we want to ensure we understand the communities these projects are impacting, and develop a plan on how best to engage those communities," said Flournoy.

The interim strategy is a short-term approach, building a scoring system that includes negative impacts from projects, which hopefully will encourage project sponsors to find ways to improve their scores. "In the long term we want to know whether the projects we are working on align with state goals. We want to make sure we are leveraging better data to make better decisions."

The interim CSIS is already being used to evaluate projects in the current ATP Cycle 6 and in S.B.1 and federal programs. While Caltrans is still working on and reviewing the strategy, the department plans to begin formulating a final CSIS sometime next spring.

There were complaints from the Commission and public commenters about inadequate outreach to agencies and rural counties, as well as from Transportation California, which strongly opposed CAPTI and its conclusions. Kiana Valentine, representing that labor group, said that the investment strategy is based on "inadequate data" and is too focused on "qualitative discussions" and not enough on quantitative data.

Regional Transportation Plan and California Statewide Transportation Plan Guidelines

One of the CTC's tasks is to write guidelines for funding programs, as well as for regional and state transportation planning. Regions prepare long-range transportation plans - RTPs - and Caltrans uses those to help prepare the statewide plan, California Transportation Plan (CTP). All of them are supposed to reflect state transportation policy and planning priorities.

Since these were last updated, California has been shifting its transportation priorities in response to the climate change emergency as well as to calls for better attention to transportation justice and equity. Information and perspectives from the A.B. 285 report, several executive orders from the governor, CAPTI, and the draft 2022 Climate Change Scoping Plan from the Air Resources Board, in addition to new federal policy direction, will all need to be incorporated into updates to the RTPs and the CTP.

An October 27 a kickoff meeting is planned for both sets of guidelines. The final drafts of the new guidelines are expected to be completed next year. This "save the date" [PDF] includes a link to register for the virtual meeting; the agenda should be posted early next week here.

San Diego Experiment with Buses Using Freeway Shoulder Lanes

Beginning last June, San Diego began an experiment to test the idea of using freeway shoulders as bus-only lanes on between I-805 and State Route 94, between downtown San Diego and the border with Mexico. That is, they began a short-term pilot on short segments of the freeway, between on-ramps, at peak hours, for one commute-hour express route. If it is successful, the plan is to extend the experiment to longer segments. The San Diego transit agency trained drivers specifically for the pilot and deployed driver-assist technology such as hazard notification.

In the first ninety days, there have been zero crashes, according to Peter Thomson, Senior Transportation Technology Analyst at the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).

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