UC Berkeley to State council: Talk of climate-focused transit empty as State prioritizes investment in automobility

Contracted by the California Strategic Growth Council, UC Berkeley—joined by UCLA and UC Davis as partners—presented their research findings regarding how much California actually follows through with its climate-focused transit promises and propositions.

by Brian Addison

After contracting with UC Berkeley—joined by UCLA and UC Davis as partners—the California Strategic Growth Council received its first draft of what has been a seven-month research endeavor examining California's transit goals versus its actual achievements—and the results are direct: While politicians talk up climate-centric transit, statewide policy, even at the local and regional levels, focus on and prioritize the single-use car over every other form of sustainable transit.

"There is a gap between the climate-friendly state vision for transportation and the reality that investments at the state and regional levels continue to emphasize automobility," read the draft presentation.

Conducting over 80 interviews with everyone from current and former elected officials to advocates and academic researchers, staff of state agencies to transit agencies and local jurisdictions, UC Berkeley has shown that this incongruence between rhetoric and actuality is one that is costing the well-being of California, both in terms of its environment and its citizens.

The 405 freeway as it snaked through Long Beach under the Orange Avenue overpass. Photo by Brian Addison.

For example, the much-lauded AB 285.

AB 285 is basically the California plan for how the state will get our greenhouse emissions 40% below the levels they were at in 1990 by 2030. The plan was celebrated because of specific programs it called out for special attention—programs that included affordable housing and sustainable community programs on top of rail, mass, and low-carbon transit programs.

But UC Berkeley found a glaring contradiction to the climate-centric ambitions of AB 285: The programs referenced in the bill represented some 2% of state transportation spending.

Two. Percent.

An enormously disproportionate amount of spending—including at the regional and local levels—continues to go toward "maintaining, rehabilitating, and operating the mature and extensive highway system," the draft read. Additionally—like the horrendous 710 expansion project, which has been paused, or the many that will literally lose their home due to the 71 expansion project, or the 5 expansion project in north Los Angeles County—we continue to expand freeways despite overwhelming evidence that freeway expansions increase congestion and decrease the quality of living of those living near or along freeway corridors.
There is a gap between the climate-friendly state vision for transportation and the reality that investments at the state and regional levels continue to emphasize automobility.
So how did we get to the point where a bill explicitly requires a focus on climate-centric transit but we are failing to do so? The answer is complicated but explainable, according to UC Berkeley.

The first part of that answer lies in bureaucracy: The way in which structure the governance of transit is mind-bogglingly multi-faceted, with multiple agencies, organizations, councils, and commissions creating a decentralized approach to statewide transit. In other words: You need so many different hands to shake one another just to get a project off the ground—and when so many of those hands work in silos, agreement—particularly agreement in alignment with climate goals—is rare.

Take a glance at the statewide agencies representing California alone: We have the California Transportation Commission, CalSTA, the California Air Resources Board, the Caltrans, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and the California Strategic Growth Council, the very council which contracted the study to remind them that they have overly-bureaucratized their own system.

This has resulted in 18 various plans by Metro Planning Organizations, or MPOs, ranging from the Climate Change Scoping Plan to the Sustainable Freight Actions Plan to the California Water Plan to the Strategic Highway Safety Plan to the Caltrans Modal Plans (which includes six individual plans within the singular umbrella plan) to the California State Rail Plan to the...

At all levels of government, spending in transportation tends to be additive without revisiting past commitments to projects or programs. Yet without reconsidering these commitments, California will not meet climate goals or other goals in its 2050 transportation plan.
On top of these complications, plans are often lofty in goal because the power to make many of the changes the plan seeks lie in powers outside that agency's ability: Local transportation spending? Land use regulations? Those are local and regional powers.

And those local and regional powers put money toward roads far more than they do active or mass transportation, especially regions outside "The Big Four" that are the Los Angeles, Bay, Sacramento, and San Diego metros.

So how the hell do we get out of this mess?

There are many approaches but the first one singled out in the draft report is increase flexibility within these agencies and plans—and that means prioritizing projects that can easily meet their goals early, match funds for those projects, and search for alternatives, like offering new types of services or alternative modes of transit, to help achieve these goals.

In other words?

"The new federal infrastructure legislation, together with new state funding, opens up opportunities for reimagining transportation in California," the draft read.

One can only hope.

The final presentation of UC Berkeley's findings will take place in December at the California Strategic Growth Council's monthly meeting.