Thursday, November 5, 2009

Funding California's Massive Transportation Needs in the Future

Nearly 300,000 cars cross the Bay Bridge every day. So, when some of its support rods failed and 5,000 pounds of steel and concrete came crashing down during rush-hour traffic last week, serious concern was in order. The six-day closure of the span for emergency repairs not only inconvenienced commuters and stressed the rail and bus system, it called into order close scrutiny of our aging infrastructure.

Transportation issues in California are as expansive as the state itself. Structural safety, unstable terrain, environmental laws and an ever-growing population have stretched our current system thin. Compounding all of these issues is, of course, funding, and furthermore, deciding where to spend it in the nation’s third-largest state.

At an October 29 Commonwealth Club panel discussion about California transportation, the overarching theme was the need for involvement at all levels (see photo of panelists). “This issue is not one to speculate on capriciously at cocktail parties,” said Therese McMillan, deputy administrator for the Federal Transit Authority. “It’s serious.”

The population of California is expected to double by 2050, meaning upgrades, along with maintenance on structures like the 73-year-old Bay Bridge, are crucial. Revenues have decreased, meaning that more public money is needed, something that is not a popular message during an economic crisis.

How to secure funding has brought up some questions. More fuel-efficient automobiles have helped drivers save at the pump and keep smog levels at bay, but revenues derived from fuel taxes have decreased. “We’re not advocating that everyone go back to gas-guzzlers,” said Norma Ortega, Interim Chief Financial Officer of Caltrans. “But this reduced funding means less for maintenance.”

The option of public and private partnerships (PPPs) is a popular method to bring in revenue, but it will still come with a hefty price tag to taxpayers. Steve Heminger, executive director of MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission), said that such partnerships can only address part of the problem.

“PPPs will play a small role. Many advocates try to use it as a replacement, but it’s a tool; a small wrench compared to the big hammer we need,” he said. “There’s no one from Goldman Sachs who wants to pay for this. It’s going to have to come from public [sources].”

No matter which way the issue is viewed, it involves the attention of public and private sectors on a very pragmatic level. An increased population leads to the need for improved management of demand, rather than simple expansion of the existing system.

“We have to prioritize with limited money,” said Ortega. “The funding picture for California is such that decisions must be made on a regional level.… The challenge with the legislature is that funds don’t get spent quickly; they get tied up for years.”

And when we need money to fix things, we need it immediately, as illustrated with the emergency repairs on the Bay Bridge. February’s federal stimulus bill gave the state about $2.5 billion to spend on transportation and the opportunity to apply for funding for projects such as high-speed rail, but it was a one-time grant, which doesn’t augment the loss of transportation funding.

“Here in the Bay Area, we anticipated the stimulus bill and acted to allocate the money two weeks after we got it,” said Heminger. “But we had to just pick the meat-and-potatoes projects – pave some roads, get new signs, buy some buses, that sort of thing.”

As the economy rights itself, some transportation experts believe the attention of the public and leaders is crucial to ensuring the proper allocation of funds and oversight of our transportation authority.

“The challenge with infrastructure investment is that it’s something we’re in for decades,” said McMillan. “We’re not able to respond as quickly or nimbly as we need to be. The question now is whether we can build flexibility into a system.”

--By Heather Mack


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