February 23, 2004 - From the February, 2004 issue

Impact of State & Federal Deficits On Region's Transportation Priorities

At both the state and federal level, many legislators are seeking to cut deficits by decreasing transportation funding. Governor Schwarzenegger's proposed budget seeks to cut $2 billion in transportation funding, while the Bush administration has threatened to veto any transportation reauthorization bill that goes over $256 billion for six years. In this interview, State Senator Kevin Murray, Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, discusses the politics of transportation in California, the potential effects of state and federal cuts on local mobility and employment, and the need to get already approved dollars on the street. Senator Murray also addresses the status of SB 314, the sales tax bill to provide dedicated funds for transportation projects in the Los Angeles area.

Kevin Murray

Senator Murray, with the fiscal straits the state is in, and with the President signaling that he'd like to discipline Congress on transportation, what are the prospects for an ambitious congestion relieving transportation program here in California, and especially Southern California?

It's going to be difficult to have an ambitious program without significant federal monies. But we have always been a region that, in addition to our federal funding, has provided and allocated local funding in a generous manner.

The governor currently has proposed to cut back sufficient sums of transportation funding. One of the questions is whether or not localities want to step up to the plate for their own projects, and various people are proposing additional tax measures to help transportation projects advance.

One of the things we found out about the public is that, particularly with transportation issues, they are usually willing to fund them if they have some confidence that the money is going to go for projects that they deem worthy. They don't want to just pay more money and give politicians the ability to allocate it. So, there are a number of factors that bode well for transportation, but obviously we are having some challenges.

There was a lot of angst about the governor's budget and what it was going to do to transportation funding, including the bond measure that had passed. How do you assess the vulnerability of the bond?

I don't know that the budget has done anything to the bond measure. However, we agreed by initiative to transfer not just the normal gasoline gallonage tax, which already goes towards transportation, but also the sales tax that people pay on gasoline and apply that toward transportation. That law included a provision under which those dollars could remain with the state if we were in dire economic straits. So, the law is operating as it was intended to operate.

The transportation aficionados certainly complain about that provision because it's less money for them. We passed that law only two or three years ago, so it wasn't like we have become totally dependent upon it. As a transportation partisan myself, I want more money for transportation. But that does not bother me, and most people on the street aren't particularly bothered by that.

The reality is that this is a zero sum game—money being redistributed to transportation is being taken away from health care and disabled veterans and other vital social services. Most people understand that we're in dire straits, and so although the gas taxes continues to go to transportation, that sales tax likely is going to stay in the general fund.

Talk a little bit about what you envision the transportation agenda for the near future to be. What is the likely and practical transportation agenda for California and Southern California?

Well, I don't know what the likely agenda is because it depends upon 120 members of the Legislature, the governor, the members of the California Transportation Commission and, more importantly, the various regional transportation authorities. But the most practical agenda is for everyone to stop whining about how much money they're not getting and concentrate on the billions that are there; we should focus not on pet projects or particular regions, but on essential projects that are ready to be built.

There are many projects that could break ground within a year, in which we don't have to pay consultants' design fees for another couple of years. We need to get that money out onto the street. Every billion dollars of transportation funding results in somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 direct jobs. When you spend money on transportation, it means you are building something—there's a man or a woman who's digging the dirt, there's man or a woman who's pouring the concrete, there's a man or a woman who is designing, there are people driving and delivering and doing all sorts of tasks. Those are real jobs.

We certainly should lament and complain a little bit about the roughly $1 billion that we could be getting this year is proposed to be redistributed in the budget proposal. But in doing so, we are losing sight of the prize if we don't take the money that we do have and make project delivery a priority. We must move forward with those projects that are ready to go.

One of the things we do in transportation is give in to these very elongated planning processes for high profile projects. While there are a bunch of people in windowless rooms doing computer models and studying civil engineering, there are projects like sound walls and off-ramps and lane expansions that are ready to go right now. These types of projects are being held up because some person, be they a politician or a bureaucrat, deems some other higher-profile project—which probably is not ready to go—a bigger priority because it gives them a bigger splash.

We have all of these pie-in-the-sky projects, some of which are very valid and mark good long-term planning. But we shouldn't be holding up the projects that are ready to go in order to realize these dreams. Get the money to the street, and let's build the projects that can be built now.

Let's segue to SB 314. Can you update our readers on its status?

Its current status is that the MTA needs to decide when or if it's actually going to put it on the ballot. We worked with them, we developed what we think was a good program that the public would support. It is very specific in terms of its projects: Neither the Legislature nor the MTA is allowed to change any of the projects, including pretty close parameters on the scope of the project.


It's also time-certain. It includes a tax, but the tax is for a limited amount of time for limited, specific projects. We think that specificity is something that would appeal to voters. For as it is right now, the MTA has to decide when to put it on the ballot.

Of course, in Los Angeles County Sheriff Baca is also proposing a tax measure, forcing us to look at what may appear on the same ballot, and whether or not there will be any conflicts.

Let's focus a little bit on Washington, where we began the conversation. There is a tug and pull between the bipartisan Congress and the deficit-ridden White House. Where does transportation, in your mind, come out at the federal level?

Well, right now it is not coming out very well. In spite of us having a wonderful Secretary of Transportation, the White House has not expressed much sympathy for transportation needs.

As your readers, I'm sure, know, all sorts of things can be passed in Congress, and then you find out in a conference committee late one night that the entire concept has changed. So frankly, it's too early to tell. I'm not getting any signs that transportation is going to do well, but that doesn't mean that in the end, a transportation advocate in the Congress won't come in and save the day.

And again, transportation spending is one of the few types of government spending that we know brings direct, significant job gains and acts as a powerful economic stimulus.

Senator Murray, MIR carried an interview with Business, Transportation & Housing Secretary Sunne McPeak last month, in which she indicated her desire on the part of the governor to link housing and transportation. What's your reaction and how do you think the Legislature will respond to this proposal?

I think it is a great concept. But it's going to be difficult to implement in a way that will realize any clear benefits.

It is a concept that has come to light, at least for me, through the development of a city called Curatiba in Brazil, where they actually planned their development around transportation hubs.

In our world, we already are fully developed. In terms of adding new developments only where there's transportation, the question is whether or not that limits you all the way around. In many places that need new transportation, we are fully developed.In order to do that right, you need to start with a clean slate and then build and develop. The concept also somewhat ignores the problems in the inner city for transportation.

So, it is a great concept and we have to work through the details in order for it to work for us. There have been various proposals in the Legislature that tied transportation funding to new housing and new jobs. But again, that ignores our inner cities, which need just as much transportation help and just as much development help.

One of the things we find out in our inner cities is that there are more transit-dependent people who rely on the public transportation network, as opposed to our inner-suburban and suburban neighborhoods from which we have been trying to divert commuters to use public transportation. Secretary McPeak may have a better idea that I haven't heard yet, but typically higher levels of transportation spending are associated with areas featuring new development and creating new jobs. In the inner cities, there's little or no land for new development and it's very difficult to generate new jobs. So in order to realize this concept of linking transportation funds and housing development, we would have to come up with a hybrid policy that included infill and some other benefits to our inner cities.

The Mobility 21 effort, which is jointly led by the MTA and LA Chamber of Commerce, has been trying to give public support and focus to a transportation agenda. Can you give them a grade as to how well they're doing and what advice you might give them to do a better job?

More of the same—I think they're doing a great job. The idea that the business community is working together with the MTA is a new one and something that should be applauded. Both the leaders at the MTA and the Chamber have been doing a wonderful job.

One piece of advice I would give them is to expand the coalition. I know that there are many groups and organizations that participate in Mobility 21, but we need to get some additional community activists and homeowner groups involved in it as well. Mobility 21 certainly moves us away from the ivory tower concept of transportation planning and takes it back down to the streets, which is a good thing.


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