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What’s on Caltrans’s $16B Holiday SHOPP-ing List?

The $15.7 billion State Highway Operations and Protection Program is one of the state’s biggest infrastructure packages. But what’s really in the 599 projects?

State Street in Boyle Heights is targeted for $20 million in “improvements” where it crosses 20 lanes of freeway. But who are the main beneficiaries? Photo: Google Maps

Note: This was originally posted at the Natural Resources Defense Council website.

What would you buy with a $15.7 billion transportation shopping budget? If you’re the California Department of Transportation - aka Caltrans - you’d go on a highway spending spree known as the State Highway Operations and Protection Program, or "SHOPP" for short to transportation wonks.

The SHOPP is the State’s largest transportation investment plan by far, and also one of the biggest opportunities to shift the state out of a car-centric status-quo to a future focused on abundant mobility options, clean air, and healthy communities.

Caltrans released a draft of its latest four-year SHOPP plan in early December, and Californians can review the full list of projects via an interactive online portal and submit comments through January 19, 2024 via this form.

What is the SHOPP?

Caltrans describes the SHOPP as “the State’s fix-it-first program that prioritizes and funds capital projects that protect, preserve, and rehabilitate the State Highway System’s (SHS) infrastructure.”

The 2024 SHOPP is a list of 599 projects (195 new and 404 ongoing) that will maintain and improve the highways that are under Caltrans’s control, which includes our state’s famous and infamous interstates (I-5, I-405, I-80, etc.), major state highways (like SR 91 in Southern California and SR 99 in the Central Valley), scenic routes like coastal Highway 1, as well as urban boulevards like Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood (SR 2) and El Camino Real (SR 82) along the San Francisco Peninsula.

What kinds of projects does it fund?

Caltrans’s press release announcing the draft 2024 SHOPP touts the following investments:

  • $8 billion to improve more than 6,000 lane-miles of pavement
  • $3.2 billion to repair and upgrade eighty bridges and tunnels
  • $900 million for safety improvements
  • $666 million to upgrade drainage systems by repairing more than 58 miles of culverts and diversions
  • $604 million for 1,400 new and improved signals, signs, ramps, and metering systems
  • Nearly $400 million to make infrastructure more resilient to the impacts of climate change. The prior SHOPP had no dedicated investment for climate resiliency
  • $280 million for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure
  • $173 million for improved highway/interstate signage and lighting

Where are the projects and who’s benefiting the most?

With the currently available information, it’s hard to get a clear picture of who’s benefiting the most. An interactive map lets you dive into projects in your community, and even filter them to just view projects in your legislative district, county, and so on. But individual project details can be hard to parse, featuring lots of engineering jargon and shorthand. And if you want to know which communities are getting the most investment in complete streets, or which communities are seeing the biggest investment in car infrastructure, it’s hard to use this data to make those comparisons because Caltrans hasn’t shared the data in a way that’s conducive to such geographic financial analysis.

Anyone interested in understanding the impacts of SHOPP projects on their community can ask questions via email SHOPP [at] dot.ca.gov or use the online form.

Is the SHOPP helping California reach its clean air and climate goals?

That’s a question NRDC is eager to dig into and better understand as we analyze the nearly 600 projects. The State’s Climate Plan for Transportation Infrastructure (CAPTI) and Governor Newsom’s Executive Order N-19-19 are supposed to align transportation spending with climate goals.

But NRDC’s analysis of the preceding 2022 SHOPP found that it included only about $1.1 billion (seven percent of the 2022 SHOPP) in investments in projects that would significantly help people walking, biking, and taking transit and thus reduce vehicles miles traveled, whereas at least $250 million went to projects that were likely to encourage more driving and $14.9 billion went to projects that would maintain the vast system while not making much impact on VMT or climate goals. And recently a Caltrans whistleblower complained that funds from the SHOPP were being inappropriately used to pay for highway widenings.

What to look out for in a SHOPP project

Getting a sense of what these projects actually are requires a critical eye -- even if you’ve managed to read all 390 pages of the 2024 SHOPP.

Take project number 0720000149 on page 79, which affects State Street in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Here’s the official description:
"In the city of Los Angeles, at State Street Overcrossing Bridge No. 53 -1328, State Street Overcrossing Bridge No. 53-0130, and State Street Overcrossing (Ramp Spur) Bridge No. 53-1350k. Upgrade bridge railing, traffic signals, and street lights, improve the turning radius at one intersection, and reconstruct sidewalks."

All that sounds like a wholesome use of $20 million dollars going towards projects that will help the traveling public move more safely. But it’s important to pause and read between the lines, especially on: “improve the turning radius at one intersection.” In traffic engineering parlance, what they mean is that Caltrans is going to rebuild an intersection to make the turning radius of the corners larger so that it is easier for large vehicles to take corners at higher speeds.

That runs counter to the City of Los Angeles’ Complete Streets Design Guidelines, which say that “curb radii should be minimized as much as possible” and that smaller curb radii have the benefits of increasing pedestrian visibility and shortening pedestrian crossing distances, thus reducing the risk of pedestrian-vehicle crashes.

It's fair to question if the proposed State Street SHOPP project is the one that best serves the residents of Boyle Heights, a neighborhood that bears the environmental injustice of having been carved up to build the interstate system that Caltrans manages. Now eighty years later, shouldn’t Caltrans be talking to the communities that its highways impact to understand what improvements they want to see? That might look like something more focused on helping residents who walk, bike, and take transit navigate the twenty-plus lanes of I-5 and I-10 that crisscross Boyle Heights.

That's just one example, representing 0.1 percent of the SHOPP budget. Now scale that up to the entire state, with over billions spent year after year for decades. We have a choice: we can take significant strides to make state highways more walkable and transit friendly, or by a thousand cuts we can make our neighborhoods even more car-dependent.

Carter Rubin is a transportation advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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