Back-Seat Driver

New Sacramento regional government chief talks Trump, transit

James Corless, the new chief at Sacramento Area Council of Governments, thinks autonomous vehicles could help older people get to appointments or shopping when they no longer are driving.
James Corless, the new chief at Sacramento Area Council of Governments, thinks autonomous vehicles could help older people get to appointments or shopping when they no longer are driving. Bloomberg

James Corless has spent the last few years in an L Street office blocks from the White House, pushing nationally for transportation funding as head of Transportation For America.

Next week, he takes another L Street office, this one in Sacramento a few blocks from the state Capitol, as new transportation planning point person for the Sacramento region.

He’ll head the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, a planning group made up of elected representatives from six local counties and all the cities in those counties, from Colfax to Isleton. In the Trump era of fiscal cutbacks, his job is a tough one: helping to guide the region’s efforts to muster federal funds and spend them sensibly.

Why come to Sacramento?

In his Transportation For America role, Corless worked with other midsized cities on smarter ways to spend limited funding. “Sacramento is similar to a lot of regions we’ve worked with in the last three years,” he said. “Midsized regions are poised for great things. Sacramento is one.”

On federal budget cuts proposed by Trump administration

“This is going to be a really important couple of years,” Corless said. “Federal grants are the seed for a lot of important projects in the Sacramento region. If we lost those, it would be a tremendous blow.” He is concerned about Trump’s proposed transit cuts. But he said he’s hopeful Republicans and Democrats in Congress will be more supportive. “I feel optimistic that infrastructure is still a bipartisan issue.”

Transportation sales tax ballot measure

A Sacramento County sales tax measure failed in November. So did one in Placer. If the counties want to try again, the benefits need to be made clear, he said. “The public is rightly skeptical of where their money goes. We have to rebuild the trust. They have to feel there is something in it for them,” Corless said. It will take grass-roots activism, he said. He suggests reaching out to teenagers. They can’t vote yet, he said, but they have a stake.

How to design new communities

The goal, he said, is designing “developments where people can walk to the store, where we integrate schools into communities, where biking is a safe option.” Housing and job centers need to be closer to each other. “We want shorter trips.”

Ideas from other cities

Indianapolis built what it calls a “cultural trail” through its downtown for cyclists and pedestrians, allowing them space away from cars and, at points, space away from each other. That type of amenity helps attract new businesses and young workers, he said. “That is what young talent wants. It’s the type of thing I can see in Sacramento.”

More, bigger freeways

Freeway expansions often are no longer considered the best bang for the buck. “We have to be strategic. Sometimes that will be widening a freeway,” he said. He spoke about modernizing bottleneck areas, clearing crashes from freeways quickly and providing incentives for express buses and carpools.

Transit in the era of Uber

Ride-share companies have eaten into transit ridership. But the two can work together, Corless says. Transit agencies need to partner with ride-sharing companies on ways people can use both services on the same trip, something RT already is trying out in a pilot program. That may mean refocusing buses on high-frequency service along high-density corridors.

Robot cars

Corless said he’s “bullish” on autonomous cars. “They are coming faster than many of us know.” He pictures, in particular, older people taking advantage of them to get to the store and doctor when they can no longer drive. He wants Sacramento to be a test site for the technology. “But I don’t want to overwhelm neighborhoods with lots of robot cars running around with no one in them.”

Meeting SACOG board members

Corless says he wants to go to Isleton, Yuba City, Lincoln and all the other cities to meet board members where they live. He likes the geographic and political diversity of his group. “They don’t all think the same or come from the same place. That is our strength.”