How do we solve California’s traffic problem? Come at it like a ‘four-layer cake’

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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California Influencers this week answered the question: What can California do to make traffic less of a nightmare? Below are the Influencers’ answers in their entirety.

Richard Bloom - California State Assemblyman (D-Santa Monica)

Traffic wastes time and resources. Yet, despite our collective frustration with it, congestion will continue unabated unless we actually make it easier to use modes of travel other than the automobile. Doing so will require four key elements: investing in public transit, building bicycle and pedestrian-friendly streets, focusing on transit-oriented housing near job centers, and managing excess demand in heavily impacted areas (commonly referred to as “congestion pricing”).

All of this will take planning and resources. For decades, our public transit systems have faced cuts in funding and reductions in service. SB 1 provided some of the necessary investments and congestion pricing could generate additional funds, as it has successfully done in cities around the world.

One thing is clear: the status quo is not working and escaping our traffic nightmare will require advancing innovative ideas.

Shannon Grove - California state Senator (R-Bakersfield)

California’s traffic congestion issues are decades-in-the-making, so there really is no magic solution. Some drivers already pay close to $5 for a gallon of gas, and we have the second highest gas taxes in the nation. Truckers pay a weight fee of about $1 billion a year. Let’s reinvest the $1 billion into road repairs and congestion relief, instead of other government programs. Transportation funding needs to be used for transportation projects.

Lastly, autonomous vehicles may soon become a reality which means less emissions and more efficient use of existing road space. As more electric vehicles, clean diesel and autonomous fleets become a reality, it means that California planners need to change their tune. Over the past 40 years, urban planners and Sacramento Democrats say people in their cars are the problem and have spent billions of our tax dollars promoting inefficient transit systems, and tried to force people out of their cars onto transit, bicycles or walking.

The scare tactics are outdated. Sacramento Democrats need to start thinking how can we support the decisions our people are making, embrace the new reality, and start building the transportation network our people want because our families and economy depend on it.

Amanda Renteria - Board Chair of Emerge America

One, we need to breakdown geographical silos and require every major city in the state to participate in solutions for regional and statewide transportation efforts. There are a number of innovative city projects underway or in development. As part of their funding and next steps, all local transportation projects should be required to show their link to a broader regional and/or statewide system. This would avoid future implementation problems. As an example, high speed rail became a geographical fight instead of a statewide common interest to link major regions.

Two, we must broaden the circle of stakeholders to address the core issues affecting congestion. The lack of affordable housing options forces employees to drive long hours on a daily basis. The growth of businesses in city centers and new mobility options have created more congested urban areas. It is important as policy ideas move forward that housing advocates, business entities, and regulatory agencies work together to develop solutions and be held accountable.

Finally, good management of resources and constant communication about the overall benefit of transportation projects is vital. From my experience at the Federal level, the state projects that succeeded were those that garnered the support from a diverse set of stakeholders at the onset and intentionally grew the support base over time.

Cesar Diaz - Legislative and Political Director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California

California’s economy, environment and quality of life depend on the performance of our transportation system. Policymakers and voters have made important decisions to protect vital transportation funds in order to maintain our roads and repair thousands of bridges, but we must also look to the future and invest heavily in a multimodal range of transportation options from high-speed rail to local mass transit systems that are accessible and affordable. With a population that is approaching 40 million, the term “super commuter” is now commonly applied to an increasing amount of road warriors who drive on our congested highways daily, working and driving longer hours in order to provide a better life for themselves and their families. Communities across our state, many which are low-income, are rightfully demanding equitable and healthier transportation options instead of projects that widen freeways in already polluted areas.

Mass transit systems linked to transit-oriented development policies that provide residents, especially working families, access to affordable housing, services, and reliable and clean modes of transportation must be prioritized. As housing costs continue to rise, it makes perfect sense to ensure properties are developed to promote mixed-use, affordable housing and communities adjacent to high quality and affordable public transportation.

Jon Coupal - President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

First, immediately divert High Speed Rail dollars to highway improvements. We’re wasting valuable transportation dollars on a failed project. Second, incentive to the greatest extent possible autonomous vehicles. Over the long term, they will prove to be more efficient and allow more traffic capacity per lane mile. Third, decentralize Caltrans. Counties are better suited to perform both construction and maintenance for all but a fraction of California’s road needs.

Carolyn Coleman - Executive Director of the League of California Cities

To alleviate traffic congestion, as well as manage the capacity of our transportation network, California must also focus on managing demand for it.

Fortunately, California voters recognized the need to enhance system capacity in 2018, and supported investments in transportation improvements that alleviate traffic congestion and improve the safety of our transportation infrastructure. Much needed road, bridge, highway and other transportation improvement projects are now underway across the state. However, California cities understand that we can’t just build our way out of this nightmare.

We need smart strategies to manage the demand for and use of our transportation systems, too. California’s communities are already doing their part to update and implement land use plans that help alleviate congestion. Cities continue to plan for and incentivize increases in housing densities near job centers, which enable residents to live and work in the same community.

Cities are also streamlining the housing development process in neighborhoods where there is an abundance of transit, accelerating the availability of housing near transit, which reduces the need to travel by car, as well as greenhouse gas emissions. California cities will remain active partners in making traffic less of a nightmare in our state.

Dan Dunmoyer - President and CEO of California Building Industry Association

Get rid of the Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) regulations that were adopted in the last weeks of Governor Brown’s term. It is based on the principle that Californians need to go on a “road diet” – congestion is good, traffic movement is bad. This policy is based on the view that if congestion gets bad enough, people will take public transit (even if it’s not clean, safe, convenient or even available). Ridership on public transit continues to decline, even as we spend more money on it. The new VMT regulations add significant costs (in some cases more than $100,000 per home). They also make changes to the safety of roads – requiring narrower lanes if not removing them entirely – requiring traffic slowing measures like bulb-outs, undulations and other “traffic calming” measures. These are the kind of impediments that blocked evacuations in Paradise and frustrate motorists with more delay. Higher housing costs mean Californians drive farther to qualify for a home. This increases, rather than decreases, VMT.

Ashley Swearengin - President and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation

In the immediate term, California needs to prioritize SB1 funding towards eligible projects that offer maximum relief for congestion, but that’s just a stopgap. Making good investments with SB1 funding will help keep traffic from getting worse, but we won’t wake up from this decades-long nightmare until business investment and job creation are realities in Inland California. There is a direct correlation between the hyper-concentration of private capital and jobs in coastal California and the nastiest, life-impacting traffic congestion in the state. We need balance in California. Inland California isn’t a fit for every coastal business that’s struggling with costs and congestion, but it certainly is for some. Relocating business investment within existing cities in the Central Valley and Inland Empire which have capacity to accommodate job investments will reduce congestion in Coastal California and increase economic opportunities in the interior of the state.

Perry Pound - Managing Director of Development for Los Angeles County, Greystar

California must encourage infill housing development close to jobs and adjacent to transit corridors. This model of ‘smart growth’ was originally developed centuries ago and replaced with the concept of suburban sprawl that was encouraged by freeway development in the 1950’s. The California legislature must support expedited CEQA for infill housing projects (as is allowed with new sports stadiums) along with reduced processing time. Supporting SB50 would have been a good start.

Amanda Eaken - Director of Transportation and Climate for the Natural Resources Defense Council

California is home to some of the world’s worst traffic. In Los Angeles, the average driver loses over 100 hours a year in traffic, the equivalent of more than two and a half weeks’ vacation.

People need more options to live without the need to drive. Building more housing near transit and jobs can help give people the choice to leave the car at home or forego car ownership entirely.

But for those who continue to drive in urban areas, we lack an organizing system of supply and demand. Enter Go Zones, or what planners call congestion pricing, the common sense idea that we get what we pay for when we use a utility like roads and highways.

When drivers pay a fee to use highly-congested streets at peak hours, the results are remarkable. In London and Stockholm, the number of cars entering the Go Zones dropped 20%, cutting traffic up to 50%, reducing emissions 10-16%. In Stockholm, childhood asthma dropped 45%. New York City recently adopted congestion pricing to tackle traffic woes and generate revenue for public transit.

Equity concerns are real and must be addressed in program design. Fortunately, NRDC partner TransForm just released a report with recommendations for how to design Go Zones to advance equity.

Jennifer Svec - Legislative Advocate for the California Association of Realtors

California’s housing shortage has not just created an affordability crisis; it has increased commute times and negatively impacted the state’s working families. The state ranks 49th for housing units per resident and 5th in worst commute times in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Job growth continues to outpace housing starts, causing rents to rise faster than wages. This has resulted in families moving farther and farther away from their jobs, increasing commute times and placing more pressure on the state’s infrastructure. SB 50, by Sen. Scott Wiener, seeks to identify solutions to the state’s housing crisis by encouraging the development of new housing units in urban environments. Specifically, SB 50 seeks to implement strategies that meet both transportation and housing planning policies by reducing vehicle miles traveled in accordance with SB 375 by Sen. Steinberg (Statutes of 2008). C.A.R. is pleased to co-sponsor SB 50 as it encourages the development of mid-rise, multi-family unit housing construction with close, walkable access to bus, rail and ferry transit or within job-rich areas, to ensure that public transportation is broadly accessible to our state’s residents, which will also serve reduce commute times.

Janice Rutherford - Supervisor for San Bernardino County

California is the center of technological innovation, yet we are still mired in transportation methods from last century that do not work for most of us. Most people want everyone else to use trains and buses while they stay in their cars. Rather than trying to change that fact, let’s respond to that need. Let’s build more road capacity and use technology to allow our cleaner-than-ever passenger vehicles to access the roadways smarter. Technology can help us drive more safely and efficiently, but as long as we set our sights on shoving people onto transit that doesn’t go where they need to, it’s a futile effort that results in the nightmare we all complain about.

Lisa Hershey - Executive Director of Housing California

Governor Newsom’s budget proposal gets this right: “Housing and transportation are inextricably linked.” Governments decide where housing gets built. When local planning does not ensure homes for all incomes are built near jobs and reliable public transit, workers are forced to make long commutes by car. That means more traffic and pollution for everyone. Workers vital to our economy – like child care providers, health home aides, and service workers – aren’t getting paid enough to keep up with skyrocketing rents. But, they are more likely than high income earners to use public transit when options exist. California’s leaders recognized this nexus and took action. The state Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program, which Housing California and partners helped create and protect, has invested cap-and-trade dollars in places that combine affordable housing, transit, bike/pedestrian and green infrastructure, removing tens of thousands of cars from the road annually. Newsom emphasizes this connection, proposing jurisdictions doing their fair share for housing receive future road infrastructure funds. We will continue collaborating with the administration, legislature, and partners to implement a fair affordable housing strategy so all our neighbors can live near their jobs and transit, and everyone benefits from a healthier, equitable California.

Rob Lapsley - President of the California Business Roundtable

“Forcing inland residents to travel hours for work each day simply because they cannot afford to live near coastal job centers is not a sustainable economic model. Prioritizing employer-oriented development will be critical to help alleviate traffic in the future. We must build jobs and housing at the same time, in the same place. The Newhall Ranch development in the Santa Clarita Valley is a great example. Not only are they building housing we so desperately need, but 11.5 million square-feet of job-generating space—including thousands of permanent jobs—is also being built. But Newhall took more than 20 years to get approved. We need to change our policies now to create more job-centered development, especially to attract manufacturing jobs in our inland regions. This will help achieve our GHG reduction goals and should be a top priority for the governor, Legislature, employers, labor unions and environmental leaders. It’s time to be bold in our politics and pass the policies that builds an economy for all of California.”

Tia Boatman Patterson - Senior Housing Adviser for Newsom Administration

The lack of housing affects so many crucial aspects of the lives of Californians, be it health, education, work and yes, traffic.

It leads to sky-high housing prices and rents in areas of the state where most people work, and that means people are commuting farther and farther to get to their jobs. Those long commutes are contributing to the traffic nightmare that many Californians face every day.

I moved to the suburbs because housing was more affordable and the schools were better. Without traffic, my drive into work is 20 minutes. With traffic, its 60-90 minutes.

Our state must break down the barriers and provide the resources that will jumpstart the production of affordable housing near people’s jobs, and improvement in other areas such as health, education and time spent in traffic will follow to give hard-working Californians the quality of life they deserve.

Carl Guardino - President and CEO of Silicon Valley Leadership Group

Bake a Wedding Cake. A four-layer cake. The first layer, the foundation, was the passage of Senate Bill 1 (Beall) in 2017, which provides roughly $5.2 billion annually in road repair, traffic relief and transit funding to re-build California’s crumbling roads and bridges, congested highways and abysmal lack of transit alternatives. As a Member of the California Transportation Commission, we have rapidly moved from “delay, defer and derail” transportation improvements before SB 1 to “repair, rebuild and replace;” as within one year we have approved $9 billion in new state funding for specific improvements, leveraging $25 billion in local, federal and private funds. And that captures the other three layers of the wedding cake – leveraging scarce federal, local and private dollars to re-build California’s crumbling roads and congested highways. Locally, more than 24 of California’s 58 counties – 80 percent of our population – have passed local sales taxes to meet local needs. At the federal level, we still receive vital funds to match our state investment. Also important, private dollars are flowing for everything from private employer shuttles that remove thousands of single occupant cars off of our roads everyday, or matching road and transit dollars for specific improvements. Yes, it’s time we baked a wedding cake, if we are going to marry the layers of funding needed to ease traffic for California residents.

Jim Boren - Executive Director of the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State

If we are serious about reducing traffic congestion, our leaders must be willing to make difficult political choices that many members of the public might not initially support. But bold leaders must do the right thing if we are going to solve this challenge.

First, we must substantially increase our investment in smart public transit systems that are as efficient and convenient as driving a personal vehicle. We’ll never be able to build enough freeways to solve our transportation problem, yet California’s politicians continue to advocate more freeway construction, while barely supporting serious transportation alternatives.

Even with all the traffic congestion, most Californians still see driving as the best transportation alternative. Getting people out of their cars is the immediate challenge. Run buses, trains and subways much more often. You should not have to wait more than 10 minutes for a bus or a train. During extreme congested periods in metropolitan areas, cars should not have the priority that they do now. Charge drivers a fee for driving in peak periods.

Solve the first-mile, last-mile problem with better connections, and by using technology to its fullest potential. For example, every transit system should have an app that tells you exactly where your bus or train is in real time.

Ride-hailing companies have helped with first-mile, last-mile, but they are expensive if you are using them to complete your daily commute. We can do better by bringing public transit within a quarter-mile of jobs and housing.

Finally, solve the high-speed rail problem. This shouldn’t be the political football that it has turned into in California. Other nations have high-speed rail, why can’t we figure this out?

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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