May 5, 2004 - From the May, 2003 issue

AAA's Stephen Finnegan Analyzes Debate Over Freeway Expansion, Budget Impacts On Transportation

Drafting and implementing solutions to the region's transportation needs is becoming increasingly difficult. Cuts to the state's transportation budget and the recent withdrawal of support for the 101 and 710 expansions highlight this reality. MIR is pleased to present this interview with Stephen Finnegan, Principal Transportation Policy Specialist for the Automobile Club of Southern California, in which he addresses the challenges presented by limited freeway capacity and an environment of severe budget cutting.


Stephen Finnegan

Steve, the 101-corridor study and its proposal to supplant about 800 residences in the name of freeway expansion was a cause celeb headline in Los Angeles. Place this infrastructure project in perspective. What's the need and what are our policy options?

The bottom-line with the 101, and for that matter other major transportation projects in California, is growth. We have growth in population, growth in economic activity and trade, growth in tourism and, with all of that, growth in travel. The question for policymakers is, how do we provide and maintain and improve mobility for that growing population and for that growing economic activity?

Clearly, we need to invest in and expand the capacity of and improve the efficiency of our transportation system-both highway and transit. The 101 is a good example of that. The recommendation for the addition of two carpool lanes in each direction, improvements to parallel arterials, transit improvements and connections of the HOV lanes to the San Fernando Valley Metro Rapidway and the Red Line Subway will be an important step in maintaining and improving mobility through the San Fernando Valley. Although this recommendation is being reconsidered by Caltrans and MTA, we must still look at ways to provide the mobility, safety, and transit option improvements embodied in the recommendation.

Some of the opposition that's been reported in the newspapers regarding the 101 expansion focuses, and correctly so, on the impacts to those communities neighboring the 101. However, it is important to realize that there are positive impacts for those communities. By expanding the capacity of the of the 101 freeway, a great deal of the cut-through traffic that goes though neighborhood streets-that weren't designed as commuter routes-will be diverted back onto the freeway. That will have an impact for the quality of life and for the safety of communities immediately adjacent and parallel to the 101 freeway. And, if we're going to accommodate our population in the future, project recommendations like this do need to be carried forward.

Are there alternatives available to the MTA and Caltrans with regard to this 101 expansion?

There are alternatives and a lot of them were looked at as this recommendation was being developed. Everyone is focusing on the addition of lanes and the required right-of-way for the project, but it's important to note other significant elements of the project, including the addition of express bus service on the 101 freeway itself and improvements to local streets and intersections. Plus, there are other great investments in transportation in the San Fernando Valley-the end of the Red Line is there, the Metro Rapidway and the north-south corridor that's being looked at and the expansion and improvement of the Metro Rapid bus service. People are focusing on this one project and saying, "aren't there other alternatives?" Well, a lot of those alternatives are already happening or will be happening and some of those are part of this recommendation as well.

Do we have our transportation priorities right given the projected growth for this basin? Are we focused on the right issues with respect to mobility? What should be at the top of our region's agenda? What should be our civic leaders' priorities?

I think the two top priorities need to be mobility and safety. We need to provide means to get to work, to get to school, to get to healthcare and to get to recreation. That's necessary for the quality of life and it's necessary for the economy, for jobs, for economic growth. And we need to do all of that more safely than in the past. The 101 recommendation would move us along that path. Other projects and services also will do that. Somehow we must move beyond the either-or situation and identify a way we can develop projects and implement project that address community concerns and that provide for improved mobility and safety.

But critics would say "that's a lot of rhetoric." When one define it as a transportation problem, you get a transportation solution. When you define it as a housing problem, you get a housing solution. When you describe it as a school facilities issues, you get schools. Who ought to integrate all these needs into a land use plan that incorporates transportation and provides for livability, mobility and safety?

A lot of parties do it. The county, the city and the MTA all do this and I think there is a great desire to begin to and continue to better integrate all of those aspects that you just mentioned. Clearly, we've got a long way to go in that, but parties from a variety of fronts are talking about more livable communities, providing for better infrastructure and providing for mobility and safety. There are solutions, but we need to work together better. We need to include people in a more meaningful way throughout all of these processes, making sure that people are educated as to what options exist, what are the benefits and costs of those options, what are the tradeoffs. Then we will be able to move forward in a manner that best serves the region and its population.

The MTA's focus is transportation. The County's mission is primarily to be a social safety net, with focus on the health and safety of this region. Is there an integrating public planning authority that could link land use to transportation policy? Is there a government entity that thinks about and focuses on quality of life in our neighborhoods?

I don't know if there is just one that does that. Clearly SCAG has some of that charge, covering a very large area. They cover the area on a macro level while cities and the county and others try to do so on a more local level. The key is coordination. We've been arguing for better coordination across jurisdictional boundaries for some time.

Who implements that coordination? Who do you suggest might be the coordinator?

I don't know if you need a single coordinator. That may be helpful, that may be an option to consider. But at the same time, all of the players just need to work more effectively together.

But who holds the silo like players accountable if they don't coordinate?

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Eventually the voters do and that's part of the education process on how things work now and how things don't work sometimes. If you look at the Orange County/LA County border, you have to look at the I-5 freeway where 12 lanes in Orange County narrow to six in Los Angeles. If you look at Orange and Riverside Counties with the 91 freeway and no agreement on new and improved travel corridors, clearly we need to coordinate better across jurisdictions-and that could happen in more local areas as well. People don't just live and work in one city or county. Residents, workers, visitors, and goods move without consideration of jurisdictional boundaries

Let's turn to the state budget crises and the pressure it's putting on the list of regional transportation projects that expect to be funded. What's at risk?

There are a lot of things at risk and there are a lot of balls still up in the air. From our perspective, we want to make sure that transportation projects, to the extent possible, can be kept on schedule. Transportation funds should not continue to be raided as one of the piggy banks of last resort, or sometimes the first resort, for the state budget. One of the examples is Proposition 42. The governor and Legislature have the authority to suspend that. However, doing so on the heels of a 70-percent approval of the measure to dedicate the sales tax on gasoline to transportation really thwarts the will of voters to provide additional resources for transportation and to make sure the taxes they pay to gasoline go towards that purpose. We are arguing that Proposition 42 should not be suspended at this time.

A lot of projects are at risk and we need to look short-term and long-term at how we provide resources for transportation. However, calling for more transportation funds at the same time that some transportation funds are being redirected to other purposes is not a solution for transportation, or for anything else.

Mobility 21 is a coalition of business, labor and transportation interests focused on federal reauthorization-What are the practical prospects for its agenda be realized?

I think it's good. However, it's clearly in its early stages. We're participating in that process with the MTA and the Chamber and many other partners. We were in Washington several weeks ago talking to leaders from California and everyone is aware of Mobility 21. They think it has potential to be an effective way to further California's transportation agenda and to bring more federal resources to the state. The key is getting people to move in the same direction. To accomplish that, the coalition must make certain that the objectives of Mobility 21 truly reflect the needs and the desires of LA County as a whole.

Elaborate on the challenge of trying to focus, both at the state and federal level, civic interest groups in metro Los Angeles on these transportation issues?

There are a number of challenges. People sometimes just throw up their hands and say, "oh well, that won't fix it" or, "it's too big a problem." But, we've been doing that for too long and there are solutions and there are ways to achieve our objectives. We need to move forward on solutions. People have to realize that we can plan and act to maintain and improve our mobility and our safety even in the face of growth and even in the face of disinvestment over the years. Overcoming apathy and defeatism is one of our largest challenges.

On the Prop. 42 issue, what dollars ought to be available and what's at risk if they are suspended? What's likely to happen?

First at risk is over a billion dollars annually for transportation. Clearly, if Proposition 42 is suspended, especially in its first year, that not only takes that amount of money immediately away, but it sets a precedent for Proposition 42 revenues to be raided whenever the state feels it needs the money. It is precedent setting. It hobbles our ability to attract other money and to match up local state and federal money for projects. And, it hampers our ability to look at ways to generate additional revenues that may be needed for transportation.

And what's likely to result from the state budget debate?

I suspect that whatever is going to happen with Proposition 42 will be tied with larger budget negotiations and decisions. We are working with others actively to oppose the suspension of Proposition 42. Some people think the compromise would be to just take some of the funds as a loan to repay. I don't think that's a worthwhile solution because transportation funds have been loaned over the decades and are often not repaid or are repaid much later with no interest. I'm holding out to maintain and preserve Proposition 42.

What should the region's civic, business, and labor leadership be doing with regard to trasnportation issues in the next year or two? What should be at the top of the agenda? What ought to be the goal and strategy employed?

We need to be focusing on real and effective solutions and improvements to our transportation system for mobility and safety. And that means funding those projects and services that will most effectively move people-transit and highway projects and services-and to do so in the most efficient manner possible. With that kind of foundation, we can both provide transportation projects in a better way and, if there is a need for additional resources, we can build the trust with voters to provide those resources as needed.

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