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California Transportation Commission (CTC)

California Will Continue Funding Projects that Induce Driving, Despite State Policy

California's Climate Action Plan for Transportation Investments calls for putting state funding towards projects that reduce vehicle miles traveled. But CTC approved several VMT-inducing projects anyway.

Ramona Expressway, not wide enough. Image from Riverside County Transportation Commission

This week the California Transportation Commission approved funding for proposed projects under several gas-tax-funded programs: the Solutions for Congested Corridors, the Trade Corridors Enhancement Program, and the Local Partners Program, which allocates money to local projects.

This is touted as the first round of funding that applies the principles from California's Climate Action Plan for Transportation Investments (CAPTI), which calls for, among other things, investing in projects that reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT). While many of the projects approved this week do so - via transit and active transportation improvements, mostly - several projects are straight-out highway expansions.

S.B. 1, the gas tax source of the funding, calls for highway projects to focus first on maintenance and repair of what already exists, before expanding. Nevertheless, "safety" and "congestion relief" continue to be used as rationales for increasing highway capacity. This is especially true with the Trade Corridors Enhancement Program, which focuses on freight movement.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that of the 26 approved projects under the Trade Corridors program, thirteen of them will lead to increased vehicle miles traveled. Only three - all rail projects - would help reduce VMT. Thus California is committing to years of increasing VMT when it should have been working to reduce it starting twenty years ago.

At this week's California Transportation Commission meeting, Commissioner Darnell Grisby grilled staff about one of these proposed projects, the "Grant Line Road Safety Freight Mobility. "I'm not knee-jerk against highway expansion or adding lanes, particularly when it comes to freight," he said. But he asked whether that project is connected to a highly controversial new proposed freeway in Sacramento County, the Capital South East Connector. Project director Matt Lampa conceded that the three-mile Grant Line Road project is indeed a segment of the larger planned freeway, but refused to address Grisby's questions about potential induced development in this largely rural area. "The [South East Connector Joint Powers Authority] is not a land use authority. There are development plans approved for the area," he said, "but not through us."

Commissioner Grisby voted "no" on the whole slate of projects in protest of this one. But his was only one vote. The rest of the Commissioners approved the staff recommendations.

"It marks an important milestone that slightly more funding in this package is supporting projects [that are] likely to reduce VMT... However, 28 percent of the proposed funding will maintain the current system without seizing an opportunity to reduce emissions."

Natural Resources Defense Council

(Note that a few years ago, this non-unanimity would have been unheard of at California Transportation Commission. Rarely did the rubber-stamping commissioners question Caltrans or local highway builders, even when objections were raised by community members or advocacy groups. So this might be a small sign of progress.)

Overall, the NRDC analysis [PDF] found a marked improvement in proposed projects' compliance with state climate goals. They called out "notable progress toward overall alignment with CAPTI’s climate goals."

"It marks an important milestone that, by our estimation, slightly more funding in this package is supporting projects that we deem likely to reduce VMT than [projects that would] increase driving and congestion—at just over 36 percent," they write. However, a solid 28 percent of the proposed funding "will maintain the current system without seizing an opportunity to reduce emissions."

NRDC’s analysis found that more than 35 percent of the funding proposed will increase VMT and greenhouse gas emissions in California, "overwhelmingly due to projects proposed under the Trade Corridors program. These are "likely to increase fuel consumption and pollution from the transportation system, and therefore will fail to reverse the trends of increased fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions" called for in Governor Newsom's Executive Order N-19-19.

Unfortunately, CTC staff is not doing the kind of analysis that NRDC did for them. In fact, staff spent some time defensively rebutting NRDC's points without even identifying the NRDC as the source of the objections. "Any induced demand is being accompanied by VMT mitigation, if possible," insisted staff member Hannah Walter. "And the projects will achieve several of CAPTI's other goals."

"The Trade Corridor program is a goods movement program," she added. "While as a state we are trying to move towards climate goals, it is not always possible right now to achieve that without affecting trade throughput."

In other words, climate goals are and will continue to take a back seat to industry and economy in California.

NRDC found that all of the projects proposed for the Local Partners Program aligned well with CAPTI, but the Solutions for Congested Corridors projects were a more mixed bag. While eight of the ten projects would lead to reduced VMT - most of them transit and active transportation projects - two of them would increase capacity for cars.

The Santa Barbara U.S. 101 "Hybrid Multimodal Corridor" Project is a plan to add an HOV lane along the highway corridor. CTC staff claimed that the VMT increase would be "mitigated" by other components of the project, including rail improvements and bike lanes. But, yes, they admitted, the project would induce more VMT. It was approved for $107 million.

From SBCAG

Another, the Mid-County Connectivity Enhancement Program in Riverside, which was set to receive $44.5 million, would widen the Ramona Expressway for almost nine miles near San Jacinto and Perris.

They considered that project a safety project, said staff - apparently meaning that a wider highway is a safer one. It would also add a second track to the existing Perris Valley Line for future Metrolink expansion to Perris, which staff counted as a mitigation for the increased VMT that would result from a wider, faster highway in the same corridor.

In other words, it looks like adding bike lanes and rail lines to projects is going to be a way for highway builders to continue adding car capacity, against state policy. Bike lanes are great, but pasting them onto a highway expansion project will only pit them in a losing battle against increasing car traffic. The end result will be undermining the climate and safety goals California is supposedly pursuing.

Another key point, as put by the NRDC in its letter: "The fact that our independent analysis may be the only source of insight available to you should be of concern… CTC commissioners and all the State’s transportation leaders currently operate at a stark information deficit in the context of aligning our state’s transportation spending with our values. The information you have received in your pre-meeting briefing materials is insufficient for you to take informed votes on these consequential funding decisions."

Despite the questions, the package of recommended projects was approved. More information on them here, and check out the NRDC's analysis here.

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