May 7, 2004 - From the June, 2002 issue

PCL Returns To Initiative Process To Achieve Traffic, Congestion Gains

Over the past thirty years, vehicle travel has increased over 200% in California. Of that increase, only 13% is attributable to population growth. With Californians driving more often and for longer distances, it should come as no surprise that six of California's urban areas rank among the 25 most congested cities in the nation, with L.A. in its 15th straight year as number one. To address traffic congestion and safety issues, the Planning and Conservation League is championing an initiative on the November ballot that will reallocate 30% of tax revenue from vehicle sales towards transportation programs. MIR is pleased to present this interview with Jerry Meral, PCL's Executive Director, to elaborate on the measure and respond to critics.


Jerry Meral

The Planning and Conservation League is sponsoring an initiative on the November ballot, the Traffic Congestion Relief and School Bus Safety Act, that aims to reallocate 30% of the sales tax revenue from automobile purchases toward transportation expenditures exclusively. What compelled this initiative? What's the expectation? What's realistic?

There are several problems we're trying to solve. Traffic congestion keeps popping up as one of the greatest concerns that Californians have. Safety, it turns out, is an even greater concern. As we begin to poll this issue, we find out that people actually are more concerned about safety, and all its elements, than they are about congestion. That would include highway safety, school bus safety, kids getting to school safely, pedestrian safety-those things are big elements that are important to the public.

From the point of view of our organization, we want to see transportation investment going into especially urbanized areas, to make cities more livable, to decrease congestion in cities, decrease air and water pollution that comes out of the conventional transportation system. We want to see a greater investment in public transportation.

Before we explore the details of this, how did it come that the Planning and Conservation League gave up on the Legislature, Governor, and the general fund as the vehicle to allocate dollars to these objectives? Why is it that you need to turn to bond measures and initiatives to accomplish your public spirited goals?

A couple of years ago, we asked Assemblymember Juan Vargas to introduce a bill that would have done much of the same thing as the initiative would do this fall. He did introduce that bill, along with an accompanying constitutional amendment. It did attract some support. But for whatever reason, the Legislature decided only to deal with the issue of sales tax on gasoline, which you know was approved by the Legislature and approved by the voters last March.

With the failure of his bill, Vargas attended our annual meeting in San Diego a year and a half ago, and urged us to consider doing an initiative because he thought the bill was important enough not to let it just die in committee.

Elaborate. In a post-Proposition 13 and post-Proposition 98 world, why is it that initiatives are the vehicle to get such goals accomplished, and why is the Legislature increasingly less able to do it?

Frankly, despite Proposition 13 and a number of other measures, term limits has really been part of the reason why the Legislature has been reluctant to establish new funding sources that deal with long-term state problems. Part of it is a fear that if they vote for new taxes, they might be ousted or criticized. That's a problem because without new revenue, it's very hard to do new programs.

We've become quite good at placing bond acts on the ballot. We've been involved in four of them in the last few years, all of which passed.

We are not promoting initiative bond acts, certainly. We think the Legislature is doing a good job in that regard. But in terms of long-term funding sources, that's something they have not done, with the exception of Prop. 42, which really dedicated the sales tax on fuel in a way that most voters felt was there already. Even that was somewhat controversial. As you know, there was a major funding campaign against it. With that Legislative reluctance, we decided we needed to go the initiative route.

People have nicknamed what you're doing as the "Meral-ization" of California finance. What's the unintended impact on the future of California's representative government of your going the initiative route or to a state bond as opposed to competing for general funds from the Legislature & Governor?

I'm not sure there's any unintended impacts because we think we know what we're accomplishing. I do think that it diminishes the legislative role somewhat. It goes to the voters and says, "What do you think is the right way to spend the general fund?" And we are, in this case, actually allocating the general fund in a way such that the Legislature's discretion is reduced.

That's an intended impact, but it's not a fortunate impact. We would like to see Legislative discretion. But with the state investing as little as two or three percent of the entire general fund in infrastructure, we cannot simply continue to run the state on the infrastructure built in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s as we're into the 21st century.

What's the size, in dollars, of the initiative and what's the expected revenue stream? How will the funds be allocated? And what is the allocation formula?

The size of the revenue that we're allocating, according to the legislative analyst, is in the neighborhood of $800-900 million a year, based on current car sales. That's less than 1% of the state's budget, but it's still a substantial increase in transportation funding.

The funding is allocated to quite a few different categories, but most of them deal with public transportation: solving congestion problems, public safety, safety on the road, safety for kids going to school, and reducing the environmental impacts, air and water pollution, of existing transportation programs.

What body of government under the initiative will be responsible for making these allocation decisions annually?

Primarily the programs are competitive. For example, in the Safe Routes to School program, CalTrans, with some input from some of the safety agencies like the Office of Traffic Safety, would decide which school routes need the most safety improvements. That would be a competitive program.

n other programs, the funds are distributed according to existing formulas. For example, in transit operations, there is an existing state formula that says if we have money to support the operation of transit systems, the controller will hand out that money based on the number of people riding that system, the population that's being served, the fare box revenue, and so on. Most of the money really goes according to existing formulas that are in state law today.

Who oversees this annually and reports on it, audits it and makes sure the formulas are applied? Does a governing body exist for this purpose?

There is an independent citizen review commission that has the power to audit the entire program every year and funding from the program is dedicated to that audit. They're entitled to hire an outside auditing company and make sure that the program money is being spent as the voters wish. All of the money is overseen by state agencies, and then given as grants to local transit districts, transit planning organizations, and, to some extent, nonprofits.

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Who appoints, by the terms of the initiative, the oversight committee?

That's appointed by the Legislature and the Governor.

With passage, what are reasonable results to expect year over year?

The first thing we'll see is projects that have been struggling for funds, but that are very popular among the public, will get a boost. In transportation in general, especially in the capitol area, you never see things happen immediately. It always takes a while.

But very important popular projects-like the Expo Line in Los Angeles, the extension of the Blue Line east of Pasadena, BART to San Jose, CalTrain to downtown San Francisco-will instantly get funds if they're ready to spend them. The extra funding will make those projects go faster or, to some extent, feasible because they'll begin to approach the full funding scenario that the California Transportation Commission insists on.

Who are the proponents and who are the opponents as of today?

Right now we're very pleased with the very broad support we have. We have a lot of public interest groups like the American Lung Association. We have business groups like the Business Property Association and California Trucking Association. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club. And a number of civic groups and local groups around the state. We're pleased with that support.

We expect to see the Service Employees International Union oppose the measure. We hope that they would not oppose. But, they did oppose Prop 42, which was later approved by 69% of the voters. We are pointing out to them that many of their members do operate transit systems, but we think there is a chance they will oppose.

What's the reaction of the state government, the Governor, the Legislature, etc.?

Frankly, while the budget is being considered, they really haven't had time to look at any of these initiatives. Our reaction has been to just wait for the budget to be adopted before going over there and explaining what we're trying to accomplish.

So far, we've only been able to meet with the cabinet-level and department head-level people in the Davis Administration. We worked very closely with them to design many of these programs. If you ask them quietly if the programs are well designed, they would say yes, both in the transportation and the environmental areas.

Jerry, your organization is called the "Planning and Conservation League." You have the word "planning" in it. What's often missing in infrastructure investment at the scale we're talking about is the planning and integration of that infrastructure into the context of the region, sub-region and neighborhoods that it impacts. What in the bond gives the neighborhoods, communities, and municipalities impacted the sense that these infrastructure projects will be positively integrated into the fabric of their communities?

There are a couple of small but very important sections that try to address that. One of the most important is a bill by Assemblymember Keeley, which said that the MPOs, the agencies that do the broad transportation planning, should consider alternative transportation scenarios that are not just based in the conventional STIP, State Transportation Improvement Program, elements. MPOs should look at alternative scenarios that include smart growth, alternative transportation modes that might produce less pollution, denser neighborhoods and so on. That was a program that was approved by the Legislature, but not yet funded by the Governor. And there's no prospect of funding.

Our initiative takes the money right off the top of this measure and annotates it to the Regional Transportation Planning Agencies assigned to do this work but don't have money. We tell them, "As you spend this money, as you spend the other transportation money you have, think of scenarios that will promote smart growth."

Also we included substantial funding for the promotion of transportation-oriented development, so local agencies will get funding to provide the public area incentives to developers. This money doesn't go directly to developers, but provides the streets, bike parking, libraries, and child care centers that make transportation-oriented development more feasible. We think that will have a tremendous impact on planning in urban areas.

Finally, there's one more thing I should add. The vast majority of this money is concentrated in urbanized areas. In many cases, that's simply because it goes to transit agencies, which operate primarily in urban areas. In other cases, it is specifically required that only higher density areas around the state are eligible for the funds. That's not just because most people live there. It's because we need to make these cities more livable-so that people will be more willing to live in them, less desirous of moving out into the suburbs-and reduce the traffic and pollution in those urbanized areas. That will be its greatest single impact.

Again, Jerry, with the strength of these arguments and the need as you've outlined it so evident to most people in California, why is our existing representative form of government - the Legislature and the Governor-unable to be responsive? Why do we need this initiative to fund transportation?

They like to preserve flexibility. The Department of Finance doesn't change with changes in administrations - Republicans or Democrats. The same basic philosophy exists: we want complete flexibility with all our general fund dollars, so we can respond to whatever the crisis of the day is, or shift money around, and so on.

But in areas like transportation, where infrastructure needs are so great, we believe that if you don't have a dedicated funding source, you can't commit to these huge long-term projects. To build the Expo Line in Los Angeles, or extend the Blue Line out into the eastern parts of Los Angles County, you can't just say, "Well, one year we'll put in fifty but the next year we'll put in nothing." You have to award long-term contracts. The state has dramatically under-invested in these things.

One might argue that this is asserting the judgement of the voters for the judgement of the Legislature. But, we think the voters are ready for more long-term, dedicated investment to infrastructure. That's something the Legislature and the Governor have so far generally not done. Although, we do want to give them credit for Prop 42. They did make a start in that case.

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