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Transit Woes Threaten to Undercut Regional Sustainability Plans

To supporters, the wisdom of Senate Bill 375, the 2008 law that promotes emissions reductions through coordination of transportation and land use, lies in its holistic approach to planning and its kitting together of disparate elements of the urban fabric. But, in light of budget crises at all level of government, one piece that is essential to SB 375's success is rapidly coming off the rails: money to run buses and trains 

If California's commuters are to reduce their dependence on personal autos and thereby reduce the state's aggregate vehicle-miles traveled under SB 375 (sponsored by Darrell Steinberg � D, Sacramento), they are expected to rely in part on public transit. Transit oriented development � most crudely defined as high-density development with access to high-frequency bus or rail service � is expected to be a key component of the sustainable communities strategies that 18 of the state's largest metropolitan planning organizations will be required to develop in the coming years. 

"Transit agencies across the board are aware that for the goals of (SB 375), public transit has to be an important component. It's kind of a truism," said Jeff Wagner, spokesperson for the California Transit Association. 

The question, however, that planners are facing may be more worthy of Zen masters than of public-sector bureaucrats: How do you do transit-oriented developments if there's no transit? 

While transit demand nationwide has hit record highs in recent years, transit agencies been decimated by a combination of higher costs and lower fare revenues that have accompanied the recession of the past three years. Nearly every agency in the state has either cut service or raised fares in what Wagner called "an epidemic statewide of service reductions, fare increases, layoffs."

The Orange County Transportation Authority, Los Angeles Metro, and San Francisco MTA all face operating deficits in excess of $100 million. Agencies have eliminated hundreds of thousands of hours of service, and many bus lines have been consolidated or erased from the service map entirely. Commuter rail services such as the Los Angele area's Metrolink and the Bay Area's Caltrain are no better off.  While many agencies are still proceeding with capital projects � including those backed partially by federal stimulus money � capital funding typically has no bearing on operational funding. 

The biggest culprit in this crisis, however, may be the State of California itself. Since 2007, the state has diverted almost the entirety of the $1 billion annual State Transit Assistance Fund � over $3 billion in total � to its General Fund and it has diverted a voter-approved gas tax that was intended to go to transportation. 

"Right now the state has decided that they don't want to fund mass transit anymore," said Carolyn Cavecche, mayor of the City of Orange and board member of the Orange County Transportation Authority. "They're out of the bus business.  Somebody's going to have to step up and fund that if you want a transit system in the state of California." 

The recent adoption of budget bills ABx8 6 and ABx8 9 provide $400 million of operations funding for fiscal year 2010-11 and $350 million for the following year. These funds � along with some federal stimulus money that can be used for operations � has postponed a complete meltdown of the public transit system, at least for now. 

"In the short run, it may prevent people from getting to work, whether it's not going to be affordable or the service simply is not going to be available," said Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities. 

The longer term, however, may be even more certain. This month the California Air Resources Board will releases its draft greenhouse gas emissions targets, and it will finalize them in September. At that point, the burden falls to the state's 18 largest MPOs to draw up sustainable communities strategies (SCS) and marry them to their regional transportation plans (RTP). Whatever the targets turn out to be � preliminary presentations from the Southern California Association of Government suggest that they may be between 6 percent and 10 percent GHG reductions � achieving them will be difficult if the buses don't run on time. 

"The planning is just a piece of it," said Gary Gallegos, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments and member of ARB's Regional Targets Advisory Committee (RTAC). "The more important piece is the implementation. I think that's where we may fall short if the state continues to rob transit or redevelopment funds. Our ability to implement some of our strategies may be weakened."

"If transit is going to be how we hit those numbers, I don't know where they're going to come up with the money to do it," said Cavecche. 

Even though SB 375 includes a long time horizon � targets will be for achievement in 2020 and 2035 � the current uncertainty of transit funding and service may make planning a dicey, uncertain affair for MPOs, cities, and transit agencies alike. 

"You can't expect cities to re-zone land and adopt a new development pattern that assumes transit systems are going to be a principle part of moving people if the state is backing out on its commitment to fund transit," said McKenzie. 

Although SB 375 explicitly charges MPOs with drawing up regional plans � and offers cities ways to opt out � the assumption is that cities will have to adjust their land use patterns and general plans to complement MPOs' regional plans. 

These assumptions may have been reasonable in the more buoyant economic times when SB 375 was developed and enacted. But today the disconnect between the law's requirements and the transit funding necessary to meet those requirements strikes many critics as another example of Sacramento's disregard for local realities. 

"I think there was a very reasonable expectation that funds would be available to fund this effort," said McKenzie. "Sen. Darrel Steinberg, committed not only to that but to finding additional funding for local infrastructure projects." 

"(Localities) don't print money any more than the state does, but they're the ones who adopted the mandate, and they have the obligation to fund it," added McKenzie. 

Steinberg did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article. 

Frustrated by what he describes as SB 375's "unfunded mandate," McKenzie said that the League of Cities has discussed whether to lobby for a suspension of SB 375 implementation (as well as that of its sister climate change law, AB 32) but as of yet League leadership has declined to take an official position. 

Meanwhile, ARB's target-setting process is proceeding as if firing on all cylinders. The targets will be determined mainly by efficacy and feasibility but will not necessarily take into account funding constraints or the current transit crisis. 

"My focus and the ARB's focus is completely on the benefits and how we can achieve those benefits from implementing SB 375," said ARB Chair Mary Nichols.

Nichols said that regardless of budget constraints, cities, MPOs, and other public agencies should be prepared to coordinate and collaborate. She noted that the type of dense, mixed use development that AB 375 promotes serves many cities' interests regardless of what the law requires. And she noted that, in the case of sustainability, funding may in fact follow from good planning. Therefore, even if the current situation makes some plans seem infeasible, money may arrive down the road. 

"I'm not saying that there are enough resources being provided for people to do all the things they would like to do," said Nichols. "But the only way we're going to get that funding�is by having plans in place that the funding can flow to." 

Much of that funding may come from the federal government, which has recently announced programs such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Sustainable Communities Planning Grant Program. 

"The federal agencies are going to recognize the fact that California agencies have charged ahead here," said Steve Heminger, executive director of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission and RTAC member. "I think it's certainly in the interest of the federal government and the Obama administration to keep California moving so we can serve as a model for the rest of the country." 

Moreover, ARB's targets � whatever they turn out to be � can be achieved without heavy reliance on transit. 

"There's a danger of overstating the role that transit plays," said Heminger. "One of the things about TOD is that those communities are walkable and bikeable. That can account for just as many trips as public transit, and as long as they're not auto trips then we're doing what we're trying to do." 

 

Contacts & Resources: 

Carolyn Cavecche, Mayor, City of Orange; Board Member, OCTA,  (714) 744-2200

Gary Gallegos, Executive Director, San Diego Association of Governments, (619) 699-1900

Steve Heminger, Executive Director, San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission, (510) 817-5810

Mary Nichols, Chair, California Air Resources Board, (916) 322-5840

Jeff Wagner, Spokesperson, California Transit Association, (916) 446-4656

For further insight into SB 375, please visit CP&DR's SB 375 Resources Page

 

 

 

 

 

 

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