January 11, 2007 - From the Dec/Jan, 2006-07 issue

Caltrans to Play Key Role in State Strategic Growth Plan Implementation

California voters have approved $20 billion in infrastructure bonds for transportation, much of which will go to the state's road network. But for all the bonds' promise, new lanes do not build themselves. That task falls to the California Dept. of Transportation, which must, under the direction of the California Transportation Commission, implement the projects that the bonds will fund. MIR spoke with Caltrans Deputy Director Gregg Albright about the agency's role in building new transportation capacity and realizing the vision set forth in the governor's Strategic Growth Plan.


Gregg Albright

What is the status of the governor's Strategic Growth Plan in light of the passage of the bonds and the departure of his distinguished Secretary of Business, Transportation, and Housing, Sunne McPeak?

The Governor brought Sunne Wright McPeak to his team because she articulated a vision for the future that complemented his own view of what needed to be done. What she put into motion in these short three years will not lose momentum with her departure.

I am excited that the Strategic Growth Plan is raising the bar, because Governor Schwarzenegger is 100 percent behind the plan. We are moving towards the "Strategic Growth Plan II"-the sequel. It furthers the same principles by asking questions like: What didn't we get accomplished in the first year? What do we need to move it forward in the forthcoming years?

The bond was one piece-a shot in the arm or kind of a down payment. That's great, and we are folding it into the Strategic Growth Plan. But we are also looking at areas where we didn't accomplish all the our objectives. The Strategic Growth Plan is like a menu, with a whole series of actions that need to go on to complement individual components of the plan.

Then you accomplish the amazing objective of having less congestion ten years from now even with the projected growth. That means things like getting greater authority for public-private partnerships, design-build, and other things that will move us forward. These are the types of strategies that Governor Schwarzenegger wants us to move forward with as we continue what we started last year. It's amazing to watch a governor have this much passion toward preparing the state to have the infrastructure necessary for our future growth.

What remains to be accomplished in the first phase of the Strategic Growth Plan?

I mentioned two things already. Only a portion of the Strategic Growth Plan funding would come out of the existing revenue stream. So, we are finding ourselves with less than what we really need to accomplish our goal of reducing congestion below today's levels. In order to bring new funds to the plan and meet more of our mobility needs, we are going to have to find additional public-private partnerships and greater engagement from private industry.

Also, we need to pursue other delivery efficiencies such as design-build. For every dollar we spend we get more done, because we find a more efficient way to deliver projects and products.

What more does California need to do to plan and invest for the impending population growth?

I may regret saying this, but basically, we as a society-whether it is Washington D.C. or Sacramento-have disinvested in infrastructure for several decades. Now the state is working to catch up. We hope to strategically invest the voter-approved bonds. We will judge proposals by performance measurements that show how a given proposal will result in congestion relief or improve connectivity-there are gaps in the transportation system that hurt commerce and goods movement, so we need to connect pieces together. Applicants need to show that every dollar has measurable benefit in congestion relief. In reality the bond doesn't necessarily accommodate projected growth. It is, in a way, trying to take care of the disinvestment that we, as a society, have neglected.

The best way to accommodate future growth is outlined within the "Mobility Pyramid." If you have talked to Secretary McPeak, you are probably familiar with the GoCalifornia plan and its Mobility Pyramid. Things like the system capacity and expansion issue are pretty clear-they're at the top of the pyramid. But there are other strategies we should pursue.

Smart growth and land-use decisions that reduce the demand on the system are things that we don't have a good handle on. These strategies require improved partnerships with lead agencies, such as a city or county, which make land-use decisions. Maximizing our system so it runs at peak levels of performance-using technology that recognizes congestion and tells people to use an alternative route-is necessary.

Making smarter land-use decisions, getting more out of the system we already have, and expanding the system are all going to have to be part of the plan. I would suggest that the bond is only a down payment on the required capital investment and we will also have to continue to promote wise land-use decisions and intelligent transportation systems to maximize these investments.

How significant was the approval of Prop 1A? How do Caltrans and the State Transportation Improvement Project benefit?

I would suggest that perhaps Proposition 1A is more important than even 1B. If you think of Prop 1B and the other bonds as down payments on infrastructure, 1A is the ability to pay off the mortgage. In other words, it is that constant income that creates a reliable funding stream-more reliable than pre-Prop 1A. So, that is a huge benefit as it creates that reliable, defendable road map. 1A settles things down and allows decision-makers, whether at city, county, or Caltrans, to present the CTC with a program for the future.

Several months ago CTC Commissioner Marian Bergeson told MIR, "I've found that top-down decision making doesn't work. People want to be able to control their destiny and apply their creative genius to make the right decisions." Does she have it right? And what does that mean for the decision-making process at Caltrans?

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I agree that we are going to find more sustainable benefit with collaborative solutions. I wouldn't suggest that we should return to some previous decade where Caltrans had 100 percent of the pot of money and, all on our own, tried to define solutions. If we were going back in time, we might focus parochially on the state system and not consider benefits of coordinating all systems. But now, in partnership, we are looking at performance-based strategies for all systems within a corridor.

The local jurisdictions are recognizing that their land-use decisions affect mobility. The local transit, commuter rail, and community groups are work together on collaborative solutions that achieve a bigger bang for the buck. It is wrong for me to say, "Stand back and give Caltrans a blank check to solve the problem." Instead, I should be dragging everybody that can affect that problem to the table.

I did that same thing in Santa Barbara. If you've ever driven from Ventura up to Santa Barbara, you've maybe run into congestion there through Montecito. At one point when I was District Director, they said, "Gregg, come back with that six-lane plan that you had 12 years ago." I said, "No, I would only come back if I had the local land-use authorities, the transit folks, and the non-motorized (bikes and pedestrian)-all the players including the environmental community-to work on the problem together."

Prior to assuming your present responsibilities you held the position of director of District 5 on the Central Coast. What problems and challenges does that district face?

District 5 has urbanizing pains; a jobs-housing imbalance has created tremendous commute issues not dissimilar to parts of Los Angeles. The question is, can you start affecting land-use decisions today that begin to address job-housing imbalance, and avoid future issues that are going to be very difficult to resolve?

Over the last 20 years areas, like Riverside and San Bernardino, have urbanized and now face serious struggles. They are contending with past land use decisions based on shorter-term economic considerations without as much consideration of long-range implications. In District 5 we are trying to generate a dialog and think in terms of 20 years down the road.

With Sunne McPeak departing, what do you suggest the governor look for in a new secretary? How important for Caltrans is his choice?

He should look for a clone! Sunne was an amazing visionary and had so much passion and experience. She understood that all these pieces fit. I hope we find someone that will continue her legacy. And she will continue to be engaged. We're not losing Sunne as far as a resource, a visionary, and someone who can add value. I know her basic vision for a comprehensive approach will continue.

From a Caltrans perspective, these visions, such as the GoCalifornia and Strategic Growth Plans, fit the state's needs. It is very clear. The momentum is there. And this has been trend-setting. All across the nation, state departments of transportation are finding that they have to behave more collaboratively and involve people that they would normally try to avoid. We are going to do it. Director Will Kempton has the same vision and passion. We are going to continue down the same path; that's my story and I am sticking to it.

The criticism from many in the transportation world is that Caltrans produces and spends bloated budgets. Is that fair? Is Caltrans as inefficient as the critics say?

On a personal level, I accept criticism if I feel like it has some validity. I accept that Caltrans is a huge operation. And I accept that based on so much of our past, it is easy for Caltrans to be parochial and self-focused. I left the Central Coast, where I had an excellent job, and came to Sacramento because my passion is to help Caltrans turn into a "mobility company" that is much more entrepreneurial and not so self-focused. It is happening.

One of my objectives as deputy director is to generate less parochial, self-focused behavior, and increase awareness that we will benefit from the synergy that occurs when people collaborate. For example, I have a program that is very sticky: local government and intergovernmental review, where we comment on the environmental review documents of lead local agencies (cities and counties) when they are doing land-use changes. Sometimes a big development will impact the state system. When that happens, it is common for Caltrans to focus on this or that issue, and we get, some people would say, very demanding as we protect the system.

I would like to get us to the point where lead agencies, Caltrans, and the development community are sitting down early on and talking about how to put the smartest land use into effect that would be responsive to each stakeholder. Ideally, we would find a balanced approach, not burden any one partner with too many responsibilities, and together find solutions so we don't destroy the capacity of some state or city system while not hindering the developer's ability to make a reasonable profit and pencil out a business plan.

I say, watch Caltrans. Watch us and see if we don't change into less of a bureaucracy and more of a "mobility company." I would also note that it takes a lot to turn a tanker-sized ship. However, feel free to push us, and if you don't see us moving towards collaborative behavior where we recognize the needs of others and move more quickly to deliver products faster and cheaper, then call us on it. If we don't change into something drastically different, you should kick us out and find somebody who can.

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