May 5, 2004 - From the July, 2003 issue

STPP's James Corless Urges More & Smarter Transportation Funding In Budget Constrained Times

Homeland security initiatives at the national level and the state's budget crisis are severely pinching needed investment in transportation in California. In order to shed some light on this subject, MIR caught up with James Corless, California Director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project at the Civic Entrepreneurs Summit last month in Sacramento. In this interview, he discusses STPP's agenda to improve California's transportation infrastructure and some of the structural impediments to the implementation of their proposals.

James, please elaborate on the transportaton and smart growth initiatives the Surface Transporation Project is advancing in California.

Well, in California we are finding that the 2/3-vote threshold is indeed difficult to surmount and there are a lot of different ideas about what it will take to bring it down to 50 or 55 percent. STPP, being a transportation organization, funnily enough has some qualms about just doing that only for transportation. And so we've put forward two proposals that address a combination of transportation, open space, housing and general infrastructure investments. We firmly believe you've got to do affordable housing along with transportation and the other infrastructure if you're going to really make a difference in accommodating future growth in California. If we just do transportation we're going to do a lot of infrastructure to move people around three hours in their commutes because they can't afford to live anywhere near where they work. That's a single focus and it's not going to cut it anymore. We need to be more balanced and understand at least in the transportation sector that affordable housing and the design of our neighborhoods to be more walkable and transit-friendly are key to solving our traffic and transportation problems.

What are the current legislative vehicles for advancing this agenda?

And the answer is SCA11 by Senator Alarcón and ACA14 by Darrell Steinberg. These authorize local sales taxes to fund housing, open space, transportation and infrastructure with a minimum 20% in each of those categories. So, those are the measures that we're pushing. We're interested in seeing what Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group is going to do if they go to the ballot with a similar effort to lower voter threshold requirements. We'd like to be a part of that as well.

Expand on STP's potential collaboration with the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group?

They're looking at some version of a measure that would lower local vote thresholds for transportation sales taxes, but they've said that they are open to including other types of infrastructure investments as well. We're are talking with them about what those would be and whether they'd be interested in including affordable housing, neighborhood parks and open space. The nice thing about SVMG is that they understand first and foremost that the driver of California's economic engine is retaining a workforce by offering them a high quality of life, which is a combination of housing and open space, public services, infrastructure and transportation.

Many assert that there is very little planning going on in California at both the state and local level. It's more mediation than planning. Is this bill going to change that paradigm? Are we going to see more colaborative planning by local planning and redevelopment agencies because of the passage of these two bills? Or, are we just going to see more mediation?

In ACA 14 we earmarked roughly 3% to 5% of the funding to be used to execute a comprehensive update of your general plan. One of the problems is that local governments just don't have the discretionary revenue right now to fund comprehensive updates of their general plans. And so, if that was an allowable use of the local revenue that they raise through these measures, we hope that these updates would happen more often and that it would be easier for local governments to engage in more strategic planning.

Is STPP seriously invested in reforming the silo-like regulation of facility and capital dollars at the state and local level to better encourage joint use siting and building of new schools in proximity to our parks; and likewise, the provision of community health care and pre and after school programs in these new facility designs and budgets? For example, California has $ 10's of billions in state bond funds for local communities to invest in the above. What are the roadblocks, for example, to our building schools as planned centers of neighborhoods?

We heard from some local folks down in San Diego last week that one of the issues with schools as the centers of communities is that they have a hard time with the joint-use piece of the puzzle. They can get the bond money to build schools themselves. But, a proposal for a joint-use development where they would have mixed-use retail, housing and open space faces an impossible time attracting the financing. And so our bills, ACA14 and SCA11, would help give localities a more flexible financing tool that they could use for exactly that type of development where they what to do a range of different types of land use investments.

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At this year's Civic Entrepreneurs Summit, where we're having this interview, many speakers noted serious structural problems in state government that they suggested constrained not only a healthy debate about smart growth and fiscal reform, but the legislature's capacity to adopt meaningful reforms. Would you like to weigh in on that debate?

I would say that we have dug ourselves into a hole in California and if we don't make some structural changes to the system, none of these other initiatives will matter. Part of the problem is that we need people in the Legislature who are vested in the system and institution for a longer period of time. I believe term limits are a good thing, but not as short as they are now. We also have too much partisanship and we don't have people who are willing to stand up for their principles, like Pat Brown did, and suffer the consequences of making the tough decisions necessary to govern.

Three decades ago, the state's constitution guaranteed the separation of sources and uses doctrine -- local governments had secure funding streams and the state had plentiful and differentiated resources; the state's voters had open primaries, assembly and senate districts were politically competitive, and local collected property tax revenues were not allocated by the State Legislature but by the local governments, including school districts, that collected the set and collected the tax on property. Do we need to return to these "good ole times?"

I don't think you have to go back to all of those changes, but we do need some of them. One of the things the Steinberg bill, AB 1221, attempts to accomplish is the flip of property taxes and sales taxes to encourage local communities to be broader minded than just going after sales tax generator. Our cities rely too much on sales tax. Somebody at the conference today said that if you make the rules and policies and stick to them, we'll follow them. And, that's what people have been doing. You can't fault local government for chasing sales tax and big box retail because that's where the money is. There's agreement among a lot of different interests that we've got to fix that, we've got to change the rules of the game.

James, most MIR interviews, whether with environmental groups or the Reason Foundation start out by the interviewee saying they are an advocate first and a citizen second. Everyone wants to win their point and prove their theory of change Often, a wholelistic analysis fall victim to a strategic initiative for reform of a peice of the problem. Is STP's reform agenda different?

Well, I would say that in this effort to drop the vote threshold for local tax measures, we are looking to accomplish change across the board and for a variety of issues, not just transportation. Even though we're a transportation organization, we know that transportation initiatives alone will not solve our growth problems and improve our quality of life, we're in desperate need of a more balanced approach that incorporates housing, green space and other more neighborhood-oriented infrastructure..

In closing,oes the projected revenued collected from ACA 11 and.ACA 14 go to the state or to the locality?

It goes to the localities and we would need to make sure that it is constitutionally protected. But, first we have got to give local governments the tools. Then, we have to restore trust in government, and in particular local and regional government. This is one way to do it.

One last comment on what SCA11 and ACA14 would accomplish. We've tried to look at the growth patterns in California and the traffic congestion that is happening all over the state. And, as we face this future growth, we need to be able to do it in a way that actually coordinates transportation and land use investments. That enables us to have affordable housing in every community, open space and neighborhood parks in every community, and all of the elements of healthy quality of life. And both of these measures basically go beyond the current authority of what local governments have to invest in just one area, one kind of specific infrastructure investments. These two measures suggest that local governments need a broader and more flexible set of tools that they can use to invest in a range of initiatives to improve their quality of life and accommodate future growth in a sensible, sustainable way.

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