November 7, 2011 - From the November, 2011 issue

SoCal’s Air Quality & Transportation: “We Need to Bring Down the Silo Walls”

MIR presents the following excerpts  from the Air Quality and Transportation Regional Conference held on October 19th. This panel, moderated by Barry Wallerstein, executive office, SCAQMD, explores where California may turn to solve its mounting mobility and air quality challenges. Panelists Maria Elena Durazo, LA County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, Alan Lowenthal, California State Senate, Disctrict 27, Kathryn Phillips, Director, Sierra Club California, James E. Moore II, USC, and Peter A. Peyser, Blank Rome Government Relations LLC, suggest that the state cannot turn to Washington for help. 


Senator Alan Lowenthal (California State Senate, District 27)POlut

"We passed Measure R because we had a strong, viable working coalition." -Maria Elena Durazo, L.A. County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO

Barry Wallerstein (Moderator): Senator Lowenthal, since we in Southern California are trying to find creative ways of approaching the interaction between transportation, mobility, air quality, energy policy, climate, and environmental justice as well as the economy and green jobs, could you give us your thoughts on how we should re-think surface transportation, goods movement, energy, and planning to better integrate public health, environmental protection, and job creation for the future?

Senator Alan Lowenthal (Democrat, District 27): When I first started 20 years ago as a community activist, I walked my district telling people why I was going to run for city council. People said, “That’s really interesting, Alan, but what’s this black soot in the window?” We’re talking about the area now that’s just east of the Port of Long Beach and the 710 Freeway. That began an odyssey to figure out how to balance the greatest economic engine in Southern California, which is goods movement and the port, and my community, where some of the kids couldn’t go to school because they had asthma. 

How do you link these opportunities and challenges? Our job strategy, then and today, has to be building upon and enhancing our successes. People thought I was a communist and that I was going to destroy the ports. You could not talk about environmental justice issues and protecting the public and port development at that time. But we’ve come a long way. One of the ways that we begin to integrate this is through persistence. By hanging in there, by talking about long-range development, by remembering that our solutions cannot just be immediate solutions, and by figuring out how everyone can partner in this we can move forward. 

Bringing everyone together has been part of what I’ve tried to do in the legislature. Often to get together is to figure out what new strategies are going to be and to figure out how we intend to develop regional approaches that deal with regional problems and solve them. 

Barry R. Wallerstein (Moderator): Maria Elena, as a labor leader and someone who has served on a number of public commissions including the Airport Commission and the Coastal Commission, which has the emphasis of protecting the environment, what are your thoughts? How can we rethink and link surface transportation, goods movement, and energy planning, integrating those with public heath, environmental protection, and job creation?

Maria Elena Durazo (Executive Secretary-Treasurer, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO): I would say, first of all, we have to remain committed to good jobs being part of the equation. That’s not always a starting point for various organizations. In fact, a lot of the talk about a more fair and more efficient green energy and environmental protection strategy has, for the most part, excluded a serious commitment and a serious conversation about creating good jobs. That has to be a part of a serious strategy. You can build a stronger coalition when quality, and in our case, union jobs, high-paying jobs, are a part of the equation. 

Part of that is having the right training, like apprenticeship programs, for example. The Electrical Training Institute in the City of Commerce is an extraordinary place where hundreds of young people are recruited to become electricians. They are being trained with the fundamentals; it doesn’t matter if you call it a green job or whatever, the fundamentals of electricity are taught. You become a journeyman or journeywoman, and you have the skills for whatever the new technology is. We need a skilled workforce through quality apprenticeship programs. And everyone in our community should have access to these quality jobs. That means there has to be a component with the equivalent of local hire. 

Measure R, an example of coalition work, started out five years ago as one organization, Move L.A. There were only about a dozen groups that came together, and we had a labor working group that was brought in from the very beginning. It was respected for its input. If that strong commitment and sincere coalition work had not been in the works for a year leading up to the vote we would not have had the power, the strength, and the resources to pass that measure. Remember, Measure R was put on the ballot right in the middle of a recession. People were already feeling the economy going downhill; there were lots of people unemployed when that vote took place. We passed Measure R because we had a strong, viable working coalition. I would say that had we not had that coalition, Measure R would not have passed, and we would not have a $40 billion revenue stream for our public transportation system today. 

Barry R. Wallerstein (Moderator): What do you see when you look to the future? Do you see an increasing numbers of green jobs for your members?

Maria Elena Durazo: I can see that only if there are conscious requirements for it or thinking about what would create those jobs here. For example, a new technology: will it be built in this country? We could create a lot more jobs in the green industry if we made a commitment to those who have expertise in this country. 

Barry R. Wallerstein (Moderator): James, what’s your response? With all your years of experience as an academic and studying these issues, do you believe there is a better way for us to integrate planning for goods movement and ports than has been done in the past?

James E. Moore II (Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Public Policy and Management, and Civil Engineering, USC): Barry, you ask a very daunting question, and you’re going to get something of a libertarian response. Is there something we can do, something that delivers coordination, delivers efficiency, and ties together the various concerns that you brought up? I’m a fan of tolling, and I am impressed by the level of interest we’ve seen in tolls as of late. Last week, the Women’s Transportation Seminar had a panel where there were several Republicans who were at least talking about the various toll projects taking place in the region. If I get on the freeway, or if I get on any road during rush hour, and I slow other people down and foul up the air. Those costs are real. But I don’t pay those costs; I ignore them. The basic economic policy behind tolls is to put those costs in the decision to travel. I will only make that trip if its benefits to me exceed the costs to me plus to costs that I am inflicting on others. This builds equity and efficiency. 

Tolls focus on prices, and prices are an excellent mechanism for coordination. Prices are something that we all respond to, and we all respond to in very similar ways. So using prices and using the market system as a way of trying to achieve coordination is a very sensible, logical way to approach this. 

Barry R. Wallerstein (Moderator): Peter, you can come at this question from decades of experience on transportation issues, working with locals as well as being part of the federal scene. Can you talk to us about your response to this question?

Peter A. Peyser (Managing Principal, Blank Rome Government Relations LLC): Sure, and first of all, thank you Barry for giving me the chance to be here. I want to particularly thank the Senator for the work he is doing in Sacramento. I’d hate to suggest that we take him out of Sacramento, but if his constituents would share him with us in Washington I think that would really be a great thing. So I hope you think about that. 

Senator Alan Lowenthal: I am thinking about that. 

Peter A. Peyser: I had an idea that you were. Anyway, I think that Washington is missing the point right now. Everything is divided into a sort of bipolar choice. We have jobs vs. the environment. We have highways vs. transit. We have goods vs. people. We have green energy vs. the oil and gas industry. These things come up in Washington as opposing forces, which is part of why we fall into this gridlock. 

We also have this ‘through the looking glass’ experience with members of both parties saying that jobs are the number one priority and members of both parties saying that we’ve got to cut spending. Those two things really don’t match up very well. So to break through that debate in the context of surface transportation, I think, it is really important that we focus on very basic questions. In Washington it’s clarifying to ask, “What’s the money for, and who gets to decide how to spend it?” We’ve got all these silos in Washington. We can break those down by saying, “It really should be for any of these things that the region decides it should be used for,” and by framing the debate along the federalism argument about regional choices, state choices, and local choices. So much of what that everyone deals with in this region is hoisted on them by the way that the federal government drives programs. 

There are a lot of barriers in federal programs besides funding that create problems in dealing with these issues. Tolling is a perfect example. Under federal law today, you can’t put tolls on any of the freeways in this region that have an interstate label on them. The 405, the 5, and the 10 cannot have tolls on them. If there were a region-wide tolling initiative to get pricing right now the federal government would stand in the way. That’s got to be broken down. 

Barry R. Wallerstein (Moderator): We frequently hear from community members that we in this region receive over 40 percent of the containers imported into the States. While we love the economic advantage of having the containers come through our ports, we also get the environmental impacts. There’s a feeling that the federal government should bear more responsibility for helping us to address those environmental impacts because we are providing a service to the entire country. Is there a way for us to capitalize on this to get some extra transportation dollars for Southern California?

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Peter A. Peyser: Well, the debate in Washington along these lines is very frustrating, but there has been a lot of work done in recent years. The Brookings Institute’s Early Mobility Center has been leading the way. They are trying to highlight the role of the mega-region in the national economy. It is our major metropolitan areas that are generating jobs and income opportunity for the rest of the county, and we all have a shared stake in the success of these regions. It’s important that we make that case. We have this anachronism in our system called the United States Senate, and California has two senators. So does Montana. That’s the fundamental problem. Saying that California needs more money because of what we do for the rest of the country as a gateway is a battle that Senator Boxer and Senator Feinstein have fought for years. 

Barry R. Wallerstein (Moderator): Kathryn, rethinking surface transportation and bringing down the silo walls?

Kathryn Phillips (Director, Sierra Club California): I want to bounce off of a couple of things that I’ve heard already. You’ve mentioned jobs. Why are we importing solar panels and wind turbines from other countries? Why aren’t we making them here? How can we develop that economy here? 

The California Transportation Commission just released their assessment of what it would cost to fix the current transportation system, just to do the repair and maintenance plus a few enhancements. Over the next ten years it would cost about $341 billion. The federal transportation bill, the last one, was $286 billion over five years. So if you doubled that, you’d have about five or six hundred billion over ten years. There’s no way the federal transportation bill is going to make much of a dent in what is needed just to bring California’s transportation system up to a state of good repair. Even those investments don’t guarantee that you’ll get reduced GHGs and reduced criterion pollutants in places. 

I think the bottom line is to not look to D.C. but to look to ourselves. I think we need to do that all over the state. California has been a leader. We have brought our businesses and our transportation people along. I think the environmentalists have helped to bring everyone along to understand that we can’t do things the way we used to do them. We have to do things in a way that cleans up the air. We need to make sure that there are good jobs and that those good jobs don’t involve creating a high level of pollution that ensures that workers who work outdoors or workers who are driving in those trucks die from cancer sooner than everyone else. 

We’re a multi-trillion dollar economy. There’s an unfair distribution of wealth in this state. We need to figure out how to tap into that so that we have the kind of transportation system that benefits everybody, that benefits business and also benefits the environment. 

Barry R. Wallerstein (Moderator): There are groups that concentrate on ‘environmental issues’, and there are other groups that concentrate on the non-profit side on transportation issues. Maria Elena talked about coalitions, coordination, and building consensus. What sort of dialogue exists today between transportation specialists and environmental specialists? Is the conversation detailed and vivid? Or are there other things that we should do to enhance that conversation?

Kathryn Phillips: There aren’t many environmentalists who specialize in transportation, and there are a lot of transportation specialists but not many of them overtly have a strong interest in the environment. We do try to seek each other out, though, and come together when we can. At my previous job I worked with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and the Environmental Defense Fund to look at how can we reduce congestion in the Los Angeles region. What can we do that does not necessarily require government action? It was an example of bringing lots of different folks together, and much of what we’ve discussed here today was embraced by everybody at the table. 

In another case we organized a national coalition of environmentalists and people involved in the freight sector, trying to influence the fate of the freight transportation bill. I’m skeptical about whether or not we’ll see a transportation bill that has anything new or fresh in it other than a little bit here and a little bit there. If we do see a transportation bill in the next couple of years I don’t think it will have substantially more dollars than it has now. That’s why I keep saying that there are a lot of things we can do in California ourselves, and one of those is figuring out how we get the funding we need without D.C. The container fee is one example. There are other fees and taxes that we need to have an honest conversation about.

Barry R. Wallerstein (Moderator): Senator Lowenthal, every day you go to work in Sacramento and the budget, I’m sure, is a priority. You mentioned the need for looking where the investments we make today are critical to turning a long-term view into reality. Do you have any thoughts about how get the biggest bang for our buck in this era of very scarce resources?

Senator Alan Lowenthal: We live now in Sacramento with decreasing revenues. What kinds of relationships exist between state and local governments? We are talking about limited resources. We’ve heard today is that we really need to push things down to regional decision-making, more towards building coalitions. Measure R would not have happened without people coming together, and that is more than just words. As Maria Elena said, this sometimes means giving up something to get something, and that’s not a quick process. How do we get there? We’re not great at doing that because we like to have top-down models. Sacramento likes to tell people what to do, and Washington likes to tell people what to do. That balance needs adjustment.

Time is not our ally. We are in a highly competitive global economy. If we want to keep our center of logistics, protect the environment, and create higher-paying jobs, time is not our friend because every else in the world is investing in this. At one time we controlled more, and because we controlled the resources we could make decisions on when we were going to deal with things and when we weren’t. That’s not true anymore. We have a sense of urgency that we need to solve these transportation, infrastructure, and air quality challenges. How do we move to the 21st century? You can’t just do more user fees: all user fees and bar access to systems like the UCs. Thus we have to convey to Washington, those of us who are on the front lines here, is that time is not our friend. We’ve got to make these decisions soon. Localities need more regional decision making power because elsewise those decisions are being made elsewhere and this nation could get passed by. 

Barry R. Wallerstein (Moderator): Jim, getting the biggest bang for our buck? Are our transportation investments balanced?

James E. Moore II: The response to your first query and second query are related. How might we tie it all together? One of the problems with tolls is that to realize large-scale efficiency gains you have to use them pervasively. If you toll individual areas incrementally there very well could be efficiency losses. So if we were to find the will to institute tolls on a very wide scale we would see very impressive efficiency gains. We would see smoother traffic flow and lower air-quality-impacting emissions. Suppose we cling to providing transit by subsidizing the producer and protecting the producer from competition: even if we keep the barriers up for entry into that market, providing more free-flow access for the public transit that is there could make for a more attractive system. 

We are driving ever more. Despite the recession we are on average wealthier in the long run. That wealth means more travel. We are driving ever more in ever more fuel-efficient vehicles, and right now we are paying for infrastructure with gasoline taxes. CAFE standards could—if we take them very literally and don’t make some institutional adjustments—bankrupt the highway trust fund permanently. So we’re going to have to make some changes with respect to transportation and infrastructure financing. In the rarified world of transportation economists you only build more roads if they are tolled; you only use road tolls to construct roads. When you run out of road toll revenues you have the optimum road system. Of course the world is a little more complicated than the rarified world of transportation economists. But the basic economic principles still guide us when you evaluate different alternatives. 

Barry R. Wallerstein (Moderator): Peter, will we see a surface transportation bill, or at least a major rewrite of transportation law, before November 2012? 

Peter Peyser: The answer is no. We need an election to happen in this country to position everyone in a way where something like that can happen. I completely agree with what Kathryn said. Regrettably, I don’t see a scenario where the next federal transportation bill brings to the table the resources that any of us would say are required. There is a 55-year history of the federal government every five or six years providing additional resources above inflation to make further investments in transportation. I believe we are going to see that history broken the next time, which is shameful. But it drives home the point that finding ways to develop resources and to make them regional is important. 

I do think that the effort you went through on Measure R sort of shows how you get the bang for the bucks. There is really no substitute for a resource-constrained discussion among key stakeholders who have to sort out what is needed now and what can be done later. That discussion takes into account all of the issues surrounding jobs, the environment, economic opportunity, safety, energy independence, and green tech. But we’ve got to crystallize that conversation around the constrained resources.

When you do a thing like Measure R where you go to the voters and say, “Here’s what we want you to pay, and here’s what it’s for,” they go for it. On tolling, the experience nationwide is the same thing. It’s not enough to say we’re going to put tolls on the road because we believe in pricing theory and because we believe in the efficiency of that as a way of deciding what gets built. You’ve got to go to the people and say, “We’re going to raise your tolls, and here is what you’re going to get for it.” 

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