Air Resources Board: CA Needs to Align Transportation Funding With Climate Goals

UC Davis Professor Dan Sperling called for convening a wide range of stakeholders in a discussion of funding priorities so that California's climate change goals are not ignored. Image: Screengrab from Cal-SPAN
UC Davis Professor Dan Sperling called for convening a wide range of stakeholders in a discussion of funding priorities so that California's climate change goals are not ignored. Image: Screengrab from Cal-SPAN

While most media coverage of last week’s California Air Resources meeting focused on the board’s decision to strengthen vehicle emission standards, an equally remarkable and important discussion happened late in the first afternoon of the two-day meeting.

That’s when the board took up the matter of setting greenhouse gas reduction targets, and board members  zeroed in on the disconnect between the state’s climate change goals and the way California funds transportation. A good chunk of the money to be raised in S.B. 1, the transportation funding bill currently making its way through the legislature, is slated for highway expansion. And that, said ARB board member John Balms, is “not the way to meet our climate change goals.”

UC Davis Professor Daniel Sperling, another member of the board, said that California needs to invest “in a way that rewards those cities and counties that are working to reduce [vehicle miles traveled],” he said.

“Right now our money mostly goes to those areas that [produce] more VMT. We’ve got to change that,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s a question of all the money only going to maintenance or all money only going to alternatives,” said board chair Mary Nichols. “I think it’s just about looking carefully at what goes into the [funding] package. As it stands now, about twenty percent of the money [in S.B. 1] is going to highway expansion.”

“We have an ongoing discussion in this state that needs to be resolved,” she added. “Whenever you add capacity to existing roads, it does create induced demand, and it fills up immediately.”

“I would argue that maybe the first place to look would be at the parts that relate to increasing capacity— and see if we could redirect those funds to things that would be more in line with our other goals.”

This is a remarkable statement from the head of a state agency. Recognizing the concept of induced demand is something that Caltrans only recently acknowledged, and few others in state governance seem willing to embrace the notion that building more road capacity does nothing to solve congestion. The concept of induced demand does not inform the funding package in S.B. 1, nor does it show up in Governor Brown’s infrastructure priorities—both of which emphasize new roads over improving and expanding transit.

The transportation funding bills “need to be aligned with statewide climate goals,” said board member John Balms. “They are on two separate paths now.”

The legislature, he said, “seems to think that climate change goals can be funded by the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund [which comes from cap-and-trade], but I don’t think there’s enough money there to provide the positive incentives that [we need]. Some of the money should come from S.B. 1,” he said.

As Streetsblog reported last week, the Air Resources Board is required to periodically update the greenhouse gas emissions targets it sets for regions. The process included collecting input on those targets from the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), which are in charge of identifying strategies to meet those targets, and moved on to gathering comments at public workshops throughout the state.

But the process highlighted something no one seemed willing to say out loud: the state is at an impasse when it comes to concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and there’s a lack of political will to actually make it happen. On one hand, you have ambitious targets, set by state legislators and the Air Resources Board; and on the other hand, you have mounting pressure to invest in “fixing roads” without clearly thinking through exactly what that means.

And on the third hand, you have MPOs pointing out all the reasons they can’t meet what targets have been set.

Cheap fuel and efficient cars are driving more driving, said the MPOs. Their current strategies for reducing vehicle miles traveled are not sufficient, and, they said, they would need a lot more money to go beyond them.

ARB staff had based their proposed targets on scenario plans called “stress tests” that the MPOs had performed to see how much emission reduction they could squeeze out of their regions. Those targets would not be anywhere near enough to reach state goals, but nevertheless the MPOs yelped.

The tests, said a representative of Sacramento Area Council of Governments, were based on ambitious, unconstrained, and above all implausible scenarios. The Metropolitan Planning Commission, the San Francisco Bay Area’s MPO, said the proposed targets would require measures “well beyond what we can achieve” under current regulations. “We need a lot more money for transit. We would need resources to address affordable housing and displacement,” said MTC’s representative.

Hassan Ikhrata, executive director of SCAG, urged the board: “Let us not go backward.” But by “backward” he didn’t mean lowering emission reduction targets until they were useless; he meant pressuring regions to meet “unrealistic” targets with a “fantasy plan” that had no basis in reality.

Professor Sperling had a few suggestions for helping the state move forward, not backward, on climate change goals. In addition to money, innovations are needed, and Californians need greatly expanded, reasonable choices, or they will not give up driving.

Sperling called for the convening of a roundtable “modeled on the work we did with the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee,” to include ARB board members, the California Transportation Commission, Caltrans, MPO representatives, and others. He suggested a first step could be to figure out how to redirect money to those cities and counties that are committed to reducing vehicle miles traveled. “How do we make [greenhouse gas reduction target] plans and efforts conform with transportation funding and local general plans?” he asked.

The roundtable idea was endorsed by several other boardmembers, and they added other topics to discuss, such as equity and consistent methods for measuring and reporting GHG emissions.

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), who recently joined the board as one of its first ex-oficio legislative members, assured the board and listeners that the conversation they are calling for about aligning transportation funding with climate change goals “is occurring.”

But, he warned, “That’s not received very well. It’s a radical idea.” Many legislators want to talk about fixing roads and bridges, but aren’t interested in investing in climate change. “There are legislators that do believe that this should all come from GGRF funds–the same legislators that don’t support climate change policies.” He paused, then added that those same lawmakers then “actually have their hand out, saying, hey, how come our communities aren’t getting any?”

“So there’s kind of a dichotomy there that is somewhat challenging to understand,” he added diplomatically.

“A.B. 1 and S.B. 1 do have some hikes in the gas and diesel tax,” he reminded everyone, and “that may help us somewhat on VMT. But we have work to do. . . It will require us to do a lot of education of some of my colleagues.”

24 thoughts on Air Resources Board: CA Needs to Align Transportation Funding With Climate Goals

  1. Says you. I guess you believe that taxing the heck out of you will stop winters in Sweden. Enjoy higher property tax, death taxes, gas taxes, ‘fees’ for paperwork for buying or selling a house, toll roads. While driving your EV and allowing the rechargeable batteries that can’t be recycled or toxic seeping if it is buried. Oh don’t forget the increase demand for cooper and other minerals to make those stupid EV.

  2. “If the consumer wants” leaded gasoline (or lead paint or aerosols with chlorofluorocarbons…), “then the free market should be more than allowed to deliver”??? Human health and environmental stability and sustainability is critical for the survival of our species. Free market regulations are imperative.

  3. Predictable and yet erroneous understanding of things. The path that California & government is on is simply unsustainable. Road funds have been robbed, only to create a perceived shortage of funds. Government has no incentive to be fiscally responsible, due to the ability to simply tax to raise increasing amounts of funding. The state, with its cap & trade gimmicks and the head-in-the-sand approach to public employee pensions and the related funding thereof, continually plays the denial trait – but that isn’t a solution by any stretch.

    This statement of yours is absolutely ridiculous:

    “This state regularly votes for more self-imposed taxes because we the voters value the role of governments.”

    Thank god for Prop 13 + the Prop 4 Gann Limit, and we need yet more restraint applied.

  4. Your blanket comments about subsidization would apply to virtually every aspect of life in the USA, and thus become redundant to this particular issue.

  5. A free market in transportation is a myth. We subsidize roads, we subsidize air quality impacts, we subsidize greenfield development, we subsidize our health care system which spends a significant part of our resources dealing with fatalities and injuries, obesity, heart disease, and we subsidize the military to protect our overseas oil sources. If there were no subsidy, it would cost so much to drive that only the rich would drive. Get over your imaginary free market. What the consumer wants and what the consumer is willing to pay for are completely different things. We have made driving cheap by diverting the costs onto others and onto the future.

  6. The only way to reduce vehicle emissions is to follow an approach which caps the number of vehicles circulating on the roads. Any other plan will not get people to stop driving and is just political spin.

  7. Perhaps, but certainly not by unelected regulators that have no motivation to achieve anything remotely resembling consensus.

  8. I’m talking about the propensity of California’s urban centers to approve regulation and regulation, and tax hike after tax hike, despite the protests from the Central Valley and Jefferson.

  9. Well gosh, it’s a wonder you’re not a Silicon Valley CEO…

    And, oops! Clinton won San Diego County 57-37.

    But anyway, it’s so cute when people take one high school economics course and become free market evangelists.

  10. If the consumer wants 8 mpg cars, then the free market should be more than allowed to deliver.

  11. “This state regularly votes for more self-imposed taxes because we the voters value the role of governments”

    By the state and voters, you mean LA/OC, and the Bay Area, right? Because San Diego the Central Valley and Jefferson are solid Republican. They are pissed about the Democrats having supermajority in the Assembly and are pissed off about the urban centers voting in every tax proposition. Screw California and their highest taxes in the nation. If I were a Silicon Valley CEO I’d consider relocating my company to the Midwest or Texas.

  12. The “free” market would have us all driving 8-mpg SUVs into oblivion as we wreak havoc on our planet.

    To hell with your free-markets. They aren’t infallible.

  13. Acesskywalker & JustJake- “The market” already decided, and it said it was fine with over 100 red alert smog days in Southern California, electricity brown-outs (remember the Enron debacle), and low density housing covering every hilltop and privatizing every beach in the state (read Eden by Design). “The market” doesn’t represent people, it represents capital, meaning owners and investors, any action is good if it produces returns. California is only getting bluer, where we want a strong government sector to regulate pollution, energy, and land use. I heard a freemarket lover claim that there hadn’t been a SMOG alert day since 1976 when the private sector introduced the catalytic converter. Wrong on two counts, in 2010 the city had 3 red alert days, and the catalytic converter was mandated by the government. This state regularly votes for more self-imposed taxes because we the voters value the role of governments.

  14. Hopefully the next Governor of California is a Republican and the state legislature swings right. Dismantle the CARB, dismantle the EPA. Let the free market decide.

  15. Sure there is a disconnect. The legislature makes laws and is supposed to represent the voters. CARB is an unelected regulatory agency with its own agenda, who answer to no one and can crank out “goals” and “targets” per its narrow viewpoint. The majority of the state do not support this CARB over reach, and the ‘impasse’ is between what the voters want and what this board wants. (which is the addressing of long delayed road improvements, despite massive amounts of road funds historically diverted to general fund).

    When Jerry Brown heads out to pasture, a reckoning as to the power and role of CARB will hopefully take place. Power corrupts.

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