May 6, 2004 - From the February, 2002 issue

Transportation Policy Meets Quality of Life Agenda: STPP Director Explains Why? & How?

In the last decade many have realized that effective transportation planning revolves around more than just fewer cars and greater bus or rail options. They have realized that transportation planning is really about comprehensive and smart land use. James Corless, California Director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) is trying to harness that slowly evolving acceptance and disperse it to the masses by helping educate people about the true nature of transit and the necessity for smart growth language in our future legislative agendas. MIR was pleased to talk with James about his mission, how it's progressing and what his current projects are at the state level.

James, California's Asembly and Senate have just begun a new legislative session and with a new Speaker. What does that mean for the legislative agenda of the Surface Transportation Policy Project? What are your legislative priorities?

Even in an economic downturn the one thing that remains constant is the need for infrastructure investment. In fact, infrastructure investment comes to the forefront in a recession because people think that there's a bigger economic boost or stimulus in the form of new infrastructure projects. But that isn't our major concern. We're not worried about the budget deficit. We're worried about using infrastructure investment-particularly as it relates to transportation-in a manner that supports sustainable land use and smart growth.

Give our readers some specific bills that you're supporting in this coming legislative session to achieve such goals.

Three years ago we tried an experiment where we basically devolved transportation spending from the state level to the regional level (Senate Bill 45). Because of that, the state is no longer in the driver's seat regarding transportation funding. However, in doing that we have given a number of regional entities, that really have never made such sweeping decisions about transportation before, enormous power to shape the future of our state's infrastructure.

To give these new regional agencies a mechanism to aid them in addressing mobility needs through land use and development patterns we're supporting Sen. Torlakson's SB 1262. This bill requires a portion of transportation funds to be used as incentives for smart growth and infill development. This approach basically replaces the traditional sticks that have been waved around at local governments who don't build enough housing or promote infill development-instead using a big mouth watering carrot in the form of transportation dollars. It will help regional entities better leverage growth patterns that can reduce regional travel demand and improve a jobs-housing balance by rewarding communities who are focusing growth inwards–think of it as a reverse fiscalization of land use. It's really a way to help plan our growth and development patterns for the future so that the billions we spend now on transportation won't simply lead to more congestion in 20 years.

Many in California are quite clear on the debilitation of livability in their environments, but they're also distrustful of state single purpose infrastructure dollars making regional and neighborhood livability worse. How do you respond to these critics, to their deseire to better integrate infrastructure investments and bond dollars into the fabric of the diverse neighborhoods that make up California?

One of the biggest problems that we've had is that transportation has had a singular focus for so long that it has become divorced from its integral relationship to quality of life, housing, open space, neighborhoods, parks, etc. We haven't made transportation work in favor of those things. In fact, the agencies responsible for linking those ideas rarely even talk to each other.

However, while it may be taking a while, we are seeing the entrenched transportation community begin to realize the importance of a dialogue with these other interests. We are beginning to see movement-at the state, local and regional levels-toward having transportation meet the broader definition of community needs rather than the narrow definition of simply moving more traffic. Those types of collaborations are also paying off in terms of real money – Alameda County in 2000 won 81 percent voter approval of its transportation sales tax because the Sierra Club, environmental justice groups and the construction unions all stood side by side in support of the plan that took two years of intense negotiation and dialogue.

We're also trying to institutionalize this broader thinking through Sen. Alarcon's bill allowing a simple majority vote on county sales tax measures dealing with transportation, affordable housing, neighborhood amenities and open space. That bill would go great lengths towards combining those facets of the infrastructure equation by making an integrated plan and incentivizing them to speak to each other as they plan for the future.

Your legislative proposals are common sense. Why is it so difficult to do?

We have a bureaucracy that has been entrenched since the beginning of the 20th Century. The states have been at the forefront of transportation and have had state Highway Departments for more than 100 years. But the Feds have only recently begun contributing to transportation planning since perhaps the 40s and the 50s. Because of those factors, making changes such as these can be likened to trying to turn a super tanker on a dime. It turns, it just turns very slowly.

Some of the proposals you mentioned are incorporated in a report just released by the Speaker's Commission on Regionalism. Is there a correlation here?


Absolutely. What we're seeing is transportation has been bumped down from the state level to the regional level because transportation is an inherently regional issue. At the same time, housing is getting bumped up from the local level to the regional level. So there is currently a meeting of these different sectors at the regional level. The Speaker's Commission Report further emphasizes that correlation. It seems as if the stars are aligning. This might be our moment in California to make sure that we have regional solutions to regional problems.

But do we have a Smart Growth Governor and Legislature?

We have a cautious Governor. We have a Governor that reads the polls very carefully. But luckily for us, the polls are saying that the residents of California want more transportation choices. That's why you saw the Governor announce such a forceful expenditure package with a major focus on mass transit two years ago.

With regard to the Legislature, they're slowly getting to a place where they understand Smart Growth concepts. To really get them involved however, what we truly need is enough locally elected officials making noise to move the issue from tacit acceptance to become a fully fledged core part of their platforms.

What other initiatives are you pursuing?

STPP has been really focused on where the money goes and how we affect transportation money to support broader goals of affordable housing, economic development and public health. But recently we've also added an emphasis on putting different criteria on reducing barriers to planning comprehensively. Especially now in the current economic climate, reducing barriers to infill development and affordable housing is a good thing to be talking about.

Additionally, we're focusing on what the traffic engineers call "level of service" or LOS. It is a very old measure of free flow traffic that you've got to maintain if you're a local transportation agency. Those rules are pretty arcane in that they only allow an agency to look at mobility intersection by intersection and count vehicles rather than people.

For example, if I have a housing project in an urban environment which is located at an intersection that's at a D or E level of service, I won't be allowed to build the project. The reality is, if I build that project I will most likely reduce regional traffic congestion, overall trips and vehicle miles traveled because projects in downtown are located near transit hubs. But the current requirements and old-fashioned highway bibles won't allow me to do that. We're looking at trying to relax the stringent and very localized requirements and allow for a more regional perspective on transportation and level of service.

The interface with transportation and land use also should include school facilities. The Governor and Speaker have indicated that they're going to support $25 billion in state school bonds over the next four years. How does that agenda play out for STPP?

It's really important. We've had great success in the last couple of years in California making pedestrian safety an issue. Safe Routes to School (Senator Nell Soto's AB 1475 of 1999 and SB 10 of 2001) has become a banner issue. It's one thing to talk about how to get kids safely to school when they have to walk a mile or two or bike five miles, but the real key is that the schools aren't that close anymore. In order to address this concern we need schools closer to the kids.

For us regionally, all over California, we're finding that the biggest growth in traffic congestion isn't the work commute, it's the short errand trips. In the Bay Area now, we are seeing the commute to school show up for the first time as a significant portion of peak hour traffic congestion-up to 25 percent of peak hour traffic is parents driving their kids to school. Because of those statistics, school facilities, school design and school location are now being considered as transportation issues. It makes sense from a transportation perspective to spend a little bit more designing more schools, smaller schools, neighborhood schools, so that we can get more kids walking and biking. That translates into less traffic and healthier, more active kids. It's a win-win for everyone.


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