April 19, 2006 - From the MIR, April, 2006 issue

State Transportation Commission Sets Priorities in Absence of Bond & Prop 42 Funds

The California Transportation Commission oversees the state's transportation network, and its charge is to allocate funds, approve projects, and encourage a unified, efficient highway and railroad system. The CTC's mission, however, depends on the amount of funding available to transportation, and that money is in short supply, especially in the absence of a comprehensive infrastructure bond. MIR was pleased to speak with Commissioner Marian Bergeson about the CTC's strategy for addressing California's mobility needs.

Marian Bergeson

When the Legislature failed to put an infrastructure bond on the June ballot, what were the costs to the state's transportation agenda, over which you have some responsibility?

The state trans-portation improve-ment program, STIP, is separate from the governor's Strategic Growth Plan, The STIP will benefit from reinstated Prop 42 funds and back-payment from the dollars that were diverted in prior years. We will have some new capacity for approving projects but not nearly enough to meet all of the requests. We are approving the bi-annual STIP on April 26 and 27 at our Commission meeting in Fresno. The governor's bond proposal is yet to be defined.

We are expecting that the Commission (CTC) will have a major role in developing performance objectives and perhaps defining and providing oversight in the delivery of designated projects within the provisions of the Governors' Strategic Plan. Of course, we are hopeful that the November ballot will include the funding sources to address these infrastructure and specifically transportation needs. Further delay will critically affect the economic, environmental and social needs of California.

In last month's MIR, David Grannis said, "significant sums of money would have gone to paying back the money taken – or stolen, if you will – from the transportation account over the last few years due to the state's budget deficit." Is that your reading of what happened?

Yes, Proposition 42 funds have been taken to balance the state budget. At one time, CTC was actually considering de-funding or de-programming prior authorized projects. That would have been extremely traumatic for local agencies and regional transportation agencies. The reality of course, is that the costs of construction, particularly in transportation funding, have gone out of sight. Project delay and uncertainty as to future funding have put transportation projects into a tailspin. Expediting project delivery is key to cost effectiveness and getting the job done.

David Grannis went on to say that "the state has a $300 billion asset in our transportation system, and it makes good sense to try to maintain what we have as well as provide mobility and congestion relief today and in the future." The Legislature seems to have difficulty focusing on this infrastructure investment over the last decade. Can you explain why?

I don't think anybody can explain why. I think it's just a failure to address issues when they should be addressed. Ongoing maintenance of our capital investments falls below the radar screen. It doesn't receive the attention it needs until safety problems politicize the process and the policy makers take notice. Local elected officials are now greatly concerned about the impact of recent storms and the condition of their streets and roads. Unfortunately, only when roads deteriorate to the extent that they have to be closed or take dollars from other projects will those problems receive proper attention.

You were for a long time a respected moderate Republican member of the staet Legislature. Is the Legislature today, with its constraints and term limits, the Legislature you recall serving in?

No. To me, it's not the same. I think the Legislature is far more polarized, and there is less willingness to reach consensus. I think the governor deserves a lot of credit for placing high priority on infrastructure in presenting his Strategic Growth Plan, but without the support of the Legislature and without cooperation from all stakeholders, a successful resolution will be very difficult.

The press has reported that the "Big Four" legislators are working together and trying to put together a bond measure for the November election. Do you have anything to add to these reports, and what would you like to see in this bond if it goes on in November?

I think we're all hearing the same rumors. I hear that the "Big Four" and both sides of the Legislature are trying to get together. I think part of the problem is that there hasn't been any common agreement or single focus on what really needed to go into the bond package. Therefore, it is difficult because the parties' and individual legislators' priorities appear to be different. I understand that there is now a concerted effort to craft a proposal that both houses can support on a bipartisan basis. And with the governor's leadership, it's possible.

We have to think optimistically, and if there's enough public pressure to demand positive action, I think we'll see something come out of the Legislature that will appear on the November ballot. However, it is important that it truly is a plan that addresses California's infrastructure needs. One other issue of extreme importance is a plan to address goods movement.


One of the arguments for pressing goods movement to the top of the agenda was that the public sees a relatively immediate result from moving the trucks off the current highways and through the cities out of the port. Is that why you support it, and why, again, has the press failed to cover this story as what we've lost instead of who gains political advantage from such a bill?

In California, legislative action usually revolves around a crisis, and until it reaches crisis proportions, it fails to get recognition. Deadlines don't do that much to force action, it pushes everything to the last minute and decisions are made in haste and rarely does the Legislature have an understanding of what they are voting on when presented to them in haste.

The difficulty with the goods movement is that it requires a plan and has to be approached one a bit at a time. The trucks are the obvious culprit because everyone is behind one or delayed because of a jack-knifed incident on the freeway. But it is a much more complex in nature. It involves ports, rail (competition between passenger and cargo), air cargo capacity, and we must plan for a system of connectivity that is convenient, safe and environmentally sensitive. That is extremely difficult in a system that thrives on "nimbyism."

Separate truck routes make a lot of sense but goods have to be delivered at specific places and very specific times, affecting, grocery stores, commercial warehouses, etc. that may not be located next to "truck routes." That doesn't mean we can't do more with technology, and better timing for delivery purposes. With adequate study, truck toll roads could be one of the solutions, particularly for interstate commerce. Goods movement is a priority issue for the state and must be addressed in order for us to gain the economic capacity to continue to grow as a leader in the national and world market.

What are the current priorities of the Transportation Commission? How does the Transportation Commission relate to the regional efforts that are also used for transportation funding?

The Commission responds to the requests of the Regional Transportation Improvements Programs (RTIPS), and the Interregional Transportation Improvement Programs (ITIP), which address our statewide system. It is critical that our regional transportation commissions or the local agencies develop well thought-out plans that can drive and leverage additional funds to complete and maintain our state highway system.

In all my experience in the Legislature, I've found that top-down decisions don't work. People want to be able to control their destiny and they want to be able to apply their creative genius to make the right decisions. Any system that is going to succeed most have the buy-in from the Regional Agencies and local stake-holders. It is up to the state to speed up permit and approval process to quickly move project completion and to establish a system of accountability.

As far as other priorities, I think we need to continue to look at public-private partnerships, design-build, design sequence, incentive contracts, and streamlining the environmental permit process. We need to continually look at new technology to further mobility for people, goods and services. And then of course we need to make certain we have the intellectual and fiscal capital to make it work. It's a big job, and it takes bundles of leadership.

We see the Commission taking a very substantial role with the Governor's Office, Secretary Sunne McPeak, Cal Trans and the Legislature in bringing together the stakeholders in a way that we can reform the system to make it more cost effective and more accountable to the people of California.

If we come back to you at the end of the year, how should we measure success?

We're going to move from formula-driven to a performance-driven criteria. By developing the performance measures and the right criteria by which to award projects – we're going to see a much more responsive, cost-effective system. There is also a need to discourage "pork" type distributions of projects. We must be assured that we have a well-connected transportation network throughout the state. If state and federal resources are provided for the Commission to allocate to worthwhile projects, we will do our part to put California in fast forward.


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