June 24, 2004 - From the March, 2001 issue

An Exit Interview: Bob Wolf, Past Chair, California Transportation Commission

As the State paddles through the murky waters of the energy crisis, other aspects of California's infrastructure wait not-so-patiently in the shadows. In fact, by recent estimates, the Golden State is said to have an infrastructure backlog of nearly $100 billion. Germania Construction President Robert Wolf, who recently stepped down from the California Transportation Commission, knows this scenario all too well. MIR was pleased to speak recently with the former CTC Chair about the way the State currently plans and finances transportation projects, and how SB 45 dramatically increased local control. Mr. Wolf also shared his concerns regarding the Governor's Traffic Congestion Relief Act's one-time partial funding and heavy emphasis on intercity rail, as well as his advice for the next L.A. MTA CEO.

Bob, your chairmanship and tenure on the California Transportation Commission have come to an end. Give our readers your perspective on the accomplishments of which you're most proud.

The enactment of SB 45 (Senator Kopp) was probably the top achievement during my tenure. That legislation brought about a completely new approach by returning transportation decision-making to the locals and holding them accountable for those decisions.

Historically, the posture has been that local transportation agencies-wanting to be responsive to the elected officials that constitute their boards-would put forward projects that might not be the most appropriate for the area. They'd basically count on the California Transportation Commission to do the triage by deciding which projects would or would not get funded. This allowed them to return to their elected board and say, "See, we tried to get your project funded, but those people in Sacramento wouldn't fund it." This sort of game playing has been taking place forever.

SB 45 brought it all to a screeching halt. Localities are now responsible for the majority of transportation decision-making. They're still required to ensure decisions fit into a statewide plan and interrelate with State expenditures, but they can now shape decisions to better suit their own local land-use planning. This has been a major paradigm shift and has resulted in better decision-making and prioritization for transportation projects. Finally, responsibility for land-use decisions is where it truly belongs-at the local level.

In light of the last State budgetary process-which, at the Governor's direction, essentially provided one-time special allocations of State transportation funds-is the planning framework that SB 45 created actually governing the allocation of transportation dollars today?

The SB 45 formulas continue to dictate the use of money from the State Highway Account, which has been historically used for transportation. However, the one-time partial funding for specific programs that the Governor has allocated through his "Traffic Congestion Relief Plan" comes out of General Fund moneys, and the formula does not apply to that.

First of all, I want to applaud the Davis Administration for realizing that transportation infrastructure (along with every infrastructure program in the State) is sorely lacking in resources, and for his decision to expend General Fund moneys for transportation.

My concern lies in the selection process for which projects receive funding. That process has resulted in a number of projects that aren't even on the priority lists of the local agencies. Combined with the partial nature of the funding, localities are finding themselves in a great dilemma.

In order to attract dollars from the Governor's plan, locals must commit to fund the project's unpaid balance. In a zero-sum game-where every local dollar is committed to a project and there are always more projects than money-this is extremely problematic. Locals are faced with the interesting question of: Which one(s) of our prioritized projects will not be funded-and therefore either postponed or deprogrammed-in order to have enough money to backfill the Governor's project?

If Governor Davis had created a smaller program of particular congestion relief projects-and funded them 100%-he would have done a greater service.

Bob, when MIR last interviewed you two years ago, you commented on Senator Kopp's other bill, SB 1477, which allocated $300 million over three years from the State Highway Account for construction of local streets and highways and the repair of storm drains. To tie all the knots together, can you now comment on the impact that bill has had on the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) and the priorities of the California Transportation Commission?

In retrospect, that bill has actually had a number of positive benefits.

The transportation infrastructure network in California obviously doesn't end at the freeway off-ramps. And expediting the movement of people from one traffic-congested area to another traffic-congested area simply by building more lanes on the freeway doesn't always result in a "seamless transportation system." In that respect, there is indeed a great unfunded need to improve "off-system" streets and roads.

My concern when we spoke two years ago was whether that money would be used appropriately. But I'm pleased to say that the local agencies receiving SB 1477 funds have been very responsible in choosing projects. As a result, we've seen the State's overall transportation system improve.

The Governor's Traffic Congestion Relief Act provides $6.8 billion over the next six years in new transportation funding derived from State sales tax and gasoline and diesel fuel taxes. As a former Commissioner, what, candidly-aside from what we've already discussed-do you believe the impact of that Act will be over the next several years?

The amount of funding for intercity rail that was arbitrarily included in the Governor's plan is cause for great concern. True intercity rail-as opposed to rail used for commuters, which does work-is ineffective in the State of California. Currently, we are subsidizing intercity rail with about $64 million a year out of the General Fund and have spent billions of dollars on infrastructure and purchase of rail right-of-way only to see a decline in the amount of ridership. And with the completion of the projects envisioned in the Governor's plan, the Legislative Analyst estimates that annual subsidy to be $328 million, or $25,000 per rider. You have to ask, Is this the most effective use of our money? Or would it have been the project that was vetted at the local level? Is this synergistically interrelated with the State's overall transportation system? And I have to say, as a citizen, No.

There are three designated intercity rail corridors in California-the Capital, the San Joaquin and the San Diego. The only place where it's worked is the Capital Corridor-which runs east/west in Northern California-and that's because of Senator Kelley's SB 470 in 1996. That bill basically turned the corridor over to a joint-powers authority, allowing local agencies to integrate commuter rail with intercity rail instead of the State running intercity and locals running commuter separately. As a result, they've increased ridership and train frequency, decreased the subsidy per passenger, and turned that corridor into a true integrated rail system. Any corridor in the State could form a similar authority and do the same thing, but the Capital is the only one that has elected to do so.

Let me now segue into the L.A. County Metropolitan Transit Authority, which just released its draft Long Range Transportation Plan for public review. You've followed the MTA's saga over the years. How is it performing in light of the State's overarching concerns and priorities?

The L.A. MTA has an innate challenge in that it is comprised of elected officials, each of whom has a constituency demanding attention irrespective of the overarching needs of the region. There's a constant competition for projects and/or dollars that is not always based on the most appropriate approach for the entire L.A. area. Instead, it often appears to be based on the strongest parochial voice at any given time, which results in rather disjointed planning.

When I look at the MTA, I'm often reminded of an old Johnny Cash song where he worked at a Cadillac factory and stole a part every year until he was finally the proud owner of a 1954/55/56/57/58/59 Cadillac. At the end of the day, yes, you can drive it. But the parts really weren't meant to join together. I understand it's a very difficult situation, and I don't know what the cure is. But until parochial interests do not overbear regional interests, we'll continue to see the same agonizing process that the L.A. MTA seems to go through year after year.

MTA's CEO Julian Burke recently announced his intention to step down. You were very optimistic when we did our interview in 1998 about Mr. Burke's stewardship, saying, "I'm very hopeful that he'll be able to steer the ship towards a safe harbor, one that will allow a reasonable approach to the multifaceted region's transportation challenges while keeping the Board together on the bigger goals." Has he met your expectations, and what kind of person do you think should succeed him?

Mr. Burke is certainly to be complemented for his work. He was able to work well with the large and rather diverse interests on the Board, and during the time I was at the State level, I saw him bring focus and closure to some very large challenges facing L.A., such as the subway discussion.

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I'm sure that if he were candid, Mr. Burke would admit that we didn't always see eye-to-eye. But I don't have to agree with a person 100% to respect his/her accomplishments.

In terms of finding a successor, part of Mr. Burke's success came from his ability to say, "I'm not looking for a job; I'm here to do a job." So it should be someone strong enough to take that position, and someone whose political skills are such that they can work within the greater framework of the L.A. MTA region while being sensitive to the parochial demands made on each Board member. It's not an easy task.

Let's return to the State and Federal roles in framing and funding transportation planning and projects. In October 1999, the Governor approved Senator Torlakson's urgency measure, AB 1012, with the main intent of reducing the large cash balance in the State Highway Account in the State Transportation Fund. What was so urgent about that bill, and what impact has its adoption been on the plans and programs that you've been working on?

I took great pleasure in working with former Assemblyman/now Senator Torlakson. He took his responsibilities as the chairman of that committee very seriously, and worked tirelessly to address some of the issues that continually dog the process.

Every dollar sitting in the State Highway Account is doing two things: 1) decreasing in value simply because of inflation, and 2) not resulting in necessary transportation infrastructure, which means additional costs for the motoring public and the State of California by extension.

The reason the State Highway Account is so high is that we've spent so much time in past years wrangling over whether all/some/none of the work to design transportation infrastructure and get the projects out to bid should be done by State employees. The relationship between PEG (Professional Engineers of California Government) and the private sector has been very tenuous. During the Wilson Administration, there was an attempt to contract out to the private sector in order to put projects in a ready-to-list (or ready to go out to bid) position. But a Supreme Court decision made that impossible, and as a result, a number of projects that should have been designed and worked on were not. I believe November's passage of the initiative that again allows work to be contracted out will correctly rectify this situation.

But there is an even more underlying challenge associated with that Highway Account. The engineers at Caltrans are very professional and very good at what they do, as are the private sector engineers. However, much of the challenge lies not in the engineering, but in the environmental challenges associated with highway projects. In my opinion, it's the environmental hurdles and "social loading" of transportation projects that really keep that money from being spent.

The environmental review process for transportation projects is at best onerous. In California, if there are any federal dollars involved, you have to go through both the CEQA and the NEPA processes. I have long advocated at least a pilot program to let CEQA stand in the place of NEPA, taking years off the transportation development process. CEQA, which requires every impact to be mitigated, is actually a greater environmental challenge than NEPA, which is more of a "group hug" where everyone just has to be at the table.

The other aspect is what I call "social loading." For any project in an urbanized area, we deal with things like social justice and environmental justice-issues that have less to do with the transportation infrastructure than the communities through which that infrastructure runs. The combination of the environmental and the social processes is such that a great deal of time is burned continuing to revisit items that should be visited once and put behind us.

Let's turn to the Federal role in transportation, specifically TEA-21 and the new GARVEE bond program. How does TEA-21-and its many features to incentivize and disincentivize transportation policies-dovetail with the State's agenda? Is California taking full advantage of the opportunities the Feds have offered?

In order to take full advantage of all the aspects of TEA-21, a state must take a multi-modal approach and not place great focus on one mode over another. In general, people in the State of California still move by highway and commute by car, and TEA-21 forced a greater focus on rail programs. While I strongly believe in the future of commuter (as opposed to intercity) rail in California, I do object to those rail programs that move people from where they are not to where they do not want to go simply because the moneys are available to build them.

Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg recently formed a Blue Ribbon Commission on Regionalism. The last similar commission was initiated by Pat Brown, and the essential message of the report it issued in December 1960 was: "We are a State of 14 million on the way to being 30 million by the end of the century, and local government has no capacity to manage that growth." In the first session of Speaker Hertzberg's new commission, it was noted that we are a State of 34 million people now on the way to being 50+ million in 20-25 years, and local government has even less capacity to manage that growth. How, then, will the State's transportation and planning agencies enable regions and localities to manage the predicted population growth, especially for Southern California?

Demographics are of course dictated by natural growth, but they are certainly affected by local land-use decisions as well. Pre-SB 45, land-use decisions that impacted regional or backbone transportation infrastructure were made by locals, and the responsibility for mitigating the impacts were then laid at the feet of the State. Post-SB 45, locals are now responsible for making the decisions and funding that necessary mitigation, which has resulted in greater attention to the impacts of land-use decisions.

An ongoing and interesting issue here is that as the metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) have grown in size and stature, that which used to unite them now divides them. One example is SCAG, where the issues of Los Angeles are not necessarily the issues of Riverside or San Bernardino counties. The regionalization that was inherent in MPO planning is definitely something I believe in-you don't pretend that your traffic problems start and stop at the county line-but because of the tremendous growth each of these metropolitan areas has experienced, I think we'll see a shift in the approach to regional planning.

I applaud Speaker Hertzberg for approaching this topic-it's a sensitive yet very important subject. Then Speaker Willie Brown's AB 4242, which tried to force regionalization, may not have been the right approach, but it did highlight the challenges associated with the fiscalization of land-use decisions and the impacts on transportation infrastructure. I hope that as the Speaker's current work unfolds, this discussion once again rises to the forefront, and the Regions Commission is able to plot a course for regional infrastructure planning while remaining sensitive to local needs.

Airports clearly are a part of the mobility challenge, and you are quite familiar with the region's difficulty in grappling with expanding passenger and cargo demand. As we do this interview, a number of the mayoral hopefuls for Los Angeles are now walking away from the just-released proposal to expand LAX, offered in the absence of a regional airport plan for Southern California. Give us your insight into what might work for LAX and how the region could share the burden of growth.

Airports are something I'm very interested in. In the spirit of total disclosure, I'm very involved with the reuse of March Reserve Base for cargo operations.

Having said that, I think I can still be regional in thinking and say that it is totally irresponsible for LAX to go to 100 MAP. Even if all of the impacts associated with that kind of passenger load can be mitigated, it's impossible to provide the necessary ground access. And even if it were physically possible to put that many people through a funnel, it would take every single regional dollar for many years. Again, is that the best use of a limited amount of transportation resources? Is that really the best way to utilize the airport infrastructure available throughout Southern California? If the demographic epicenter is shifting inland, would it not make more sense to capitalize on existing runway opportunities that exist there? El Toro, March, Norton, and George (to some extent) are all available infrastructure where ground access is a realistic possibility.

So I applaud anyone who will walk away from a proposition that LAX should go to 100 MAP. In my own estimation, 74 MAP is a max for LAX to still get people there and back.

Let's close by asking what advice you'd like to offer to the current Chair of the State Transportation Commission.

Roger Kosberg from Los Angeles is as diligent a public servant as I have ever seen, as is his entire family. I would share with Roger what I've already shared with him in private: Remember the law of incremental gain. If you can keep your eye on the goal, any movement in that direction is a victory.

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