July 1, 2004 - From the July, 2001 issue

Under Consideration: A Traffic Congestion Relief Act PCL's Latest Statewide Ballot Initiative Idea

As California faces a transportation funding shortfall of over $100 billion over the next decade, it's no wonder traffic congestion is projected to rise by 250-500% in California's major metropolitan areas over the next 20 years, even if all currently planned projects are built. That's why the Planning & Conservation League is introducing the Traffic Congestion Relief Act initiative. MIR was pleased to speak with PCL Transportation Director Eddy Moore, who attempts to justify the Act's impact on the State budget as well as the use of the initiative process.

Eddy Moore

The Planning and Conservation League is considering sponsoring a statewide initiative aimed for the November 2002 ballot related to transportation infrastructure funding. One analyst has termed it the "Prop. 98 of transportation." Could you elaborate on the need and thrust of this proposed ballot initiative?

It's estimated that California has over $100 billion in unfunded need for transportation infrastructure over the next ten years. In LA, the recent estimate is that it will cost $40 billion over the next 25 years just to keep up the current system and add necessary upgrades. And no one has said where the money's going to come from.

There needs to be better investment in transportation for a host of reasons, including economic growth and environmental quality, and the Traffic Congestion Relief Act (TCRA) initiative will enable California to lead the way in forward-thinking infrastructure investment. We also include operations funds for transit, which will inevitably be a key part of any future transportation system, especially in major cities like Los Angeles.

The reason for analogizing TCRA to "Prop. 98 " is that you would dedicate a substantial portion of the discretionary revenue growth coming into the State in future years to a single purpose: transportation. Could you elaborate on the proposed funding mechanism-where the revenue would be coming from and how it would be expended?

The revenue comes from two sources. One is the sales tax that we now pay on gasoline; the other is the sales tax on motor vehicles, both of which currently go to the State. Together, they create a funding stream of about $3.8 billion annually, which would flow to a wide range of transportation investments.

PCL's thinking is that the most logical use of those moneys is transportation improvements.

The Governor's Infrastructure Commission essentially calls for a 1% set-aside for all infrastructure-including schools, construction, water, transportation, etc.-increasing over time to 3 to 5% of the budget. Your proposal, on the other hand, calls for a 3 to 4% set-aside for transportation infrastructure alone. What are the politics of having so much dedicated to transportation infrastructure? Is education funding impacted?

There's plenty of discussion in Sacramento right now about the $1.1-billion gasoline sales tax, which is already promised for the next several years and may be continued. So in terms of an increase, we're mostly talking about the $2.7 billion generated from the motor vehicles sales tax, which works out to be about 3%.

One thing we were careful to include was protection for Prop. 98 funding. Under no circumstances would this measure cut General Fund revenues to K-14 education.

However, we do think that transportation infrastructure is an underlying determinant of how economic growth in the State is going to occur. Historically, California has invested as much as 19% of the State budget in infrastructure; we're down to around 3% today. We're basically living off the infrastructure built by previous generations, and we need to begin to build both for ourselves and for future generations. And we need to do it in a wise way.

The "wise way" is what you might elaborate upon. Critics of TCRA's approach include those who are not against infrastructure investment, but who seek a more balanced alternative than taking a sizeable portion of the budget growth expected over the next seven years-$3 to $5 billion per year-and investing it in transportation infrastructure. Could you respond to such critics?

First of all, we're not taking all of the growth, especially if you look out over a five or ten year window. For the first two years, we only allow our plan to grow if there are increases in the General Fund to cover it. After that, we actually allow the Transportation Fund to make no-interest loans to the General Fund.

You wouldn't expect to have almost no growth in the General Fund over a five-year period, but if that were to occur, we wouldn't hit the General Fund at all.

Beyond five years, there is more than enough growth to cover this.

Many initiatives, because of the single subject rule, have a way of solving one problem with little regard to the unintended impacts on other needs. How do we balance, some critics would argue, the State's infrastructure needs-water, public works, school construction and other essential needs-if we siphon off such a sizeable portion of the State's revenue growth for transportation? Is there a more balanced means than the initiative process for prioritizing and investing in our State's infrastructure?

Again, it's incorrect to say that once you get beyond five years, this doesn't leave growth to take care of other infrastructure problems.


There are certainly constraints inherent to the initiative process. One is what's called the single subject rule, which makes it legally impossible to write an initiative that aims to solve a broad sector of problems. But forming and implementing a grand plan that takes on multiple issues is something much better addressed by the Governor and the Legislature with its budgetary process anyway. So there may be some wisdom to the single subject rule.

The initiative process exists as a pressure valve for specific problems that continually fail to be solved. By its nature, the legislative process is extremely incremental. We now have a situation in California where a number of polls around the State have reflected immense frustration with traffic congestion and related transportation problems for a number of years now. The Los Angeles region has long had an air quality problem linked directly to transportation. Yet the solutions continue to be incremental.

The initiative process is a valuable process that has its place. It allows the public to weigh in on what they may see as a feasible solution. And if they don't think it's a feasible solution, they can turn it down.

By proposing the TCRA Initiative, is PCL suggesting that the work of the Governor's Infrastructure Commission and its soon-to-be-released recommendations will do little to move the Legislature and Governor to act appropriately?

We are not making any pre-judgements on what will happen through the Governor's leadership and the efforts of legislators.

When we first put the plan together, we had a very fine member of the Legislature, Juan Vargas, introduce it as a bill. While we did get some feedback and exposure, the Legislature ultimately backed off, partly due to the distractions of the energy crisis.

However, we were also told that when a plan is big, it often faces an uphill battle to enactment. What PCL is trying to do is give the people an opportunity to take two or three steps forward rather than one at a time.

Summarize the features of the TCRA initiative that you believe are most attractive to both voters and potential financial supporters of the initiative campaign.

If you don't have the voters, you of course don't have an initiative-so TCRA will provide substantial funds back to cities and counties to maintain local street and road infrastructure, which is estimated to have an $11-billion backlog statewide, growing by $400 million a year. We feature a "fix-it-first" philosophy because if you don't keep up what you have, a whole manner of problems results, not the least of which is people and businesses moving out to the ring.

The next priority is public transit, including incentive funds for transit-oriented development, the first such incentives from the State level. Our aim is to stop ignoring the link between transit and land-use. But rather than regulating our way there-an approach that has not yet worked-TCRA provides financial incentive. The goal is to knit together affordable housing and livable communities, making it easier to get around by walking, biking and using public transit. And that of course has clean air benefits as well.

What's the timeline for the TCRA initiative, and what support do you have presently?

We haven't actually filed for an initiative yet. We're still in the development phase talking to people throughout California about how to make this measure better. And I would certainly invite your readers to contact us with any input because we want it to be something they can support.

We expect to file in September if we can garner enough support. It will probably take $8 to $10 million to run a good campaign, so we'll be looking for backers. Obviously, with any campaign, it will also depend on things like the economy, so we'll be watching closely to determine if the political climate still seems good in September. At this point, we think it is.

Right now, we're looking under every stone for suggestions on how this can be the best possible measure to address California's transportation picture.

There's a chance that there will be other transportation measures on the ballot too, either statewide or locally. But when that's happened in the past, we've cooperated and have been successful. Voters generally look at each measure and decide whether it's good or bad.



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