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If we listen closely, we can almost hear the collective cries of 39 million Californians, “Give me a break.” A break, that is, from brake lights.
The twin terrors faced daily by California commuters are the crumbling conditions of our roads, bridges and highways, coupled with the congested corridors that lead to soul-sucking commutes. Whether road or rail, bikes or buses, California is locked in gridlock.
Here’s context that underscores the enormity of our challenge: California is home to 51,900 highway lane miles and 305,000 miles of local streets and roads. We have 15,000 state bridges, of which 1,600 are in poor condition. Until last year, we hadn’t raised the gas tax in a quarter century, and – adjusted for inflation – it had less buying power since it was initially enacted 100 years ago.
With the passage of Senate Bill 1 in 2017, California is investing an additional $5.2 billion in state funds annually for transportation improvements, transit options and traffic relief. Specifically, these new funds are targeted as follows:
- $1.8 billion annually to improve the conditions of our state highways and bridges
- $1.7 billion annually to fix potholes and maintain streets in all 482 cities and 58 counties
- $750 million for transit improvements as alternatives to the automobile
- $300 million for Trade Corridor improvement funding
- $250 million annually to improve our state’s most congested highway corridors
- $200 million each year for active transportation projects that focus on bikes and pedestrians
- $200 million annually in funding for “self-help” cities and counties, whose voters have taxed themselves for traffic relief
In just the past year, the California Transportation Commission, on which I’m honored to serve, has allocated $9 billion in SB 1 funds, leveraging $25 billion for specific transportation improvements. By the end of 2018, there were already 6,500 specific projects underway throughout our state.
To grapple with the daily gridlock, we cannot simply rely on state funds. Like layers of a cake, the state layer is vital, but we also need local, private sector and federal layers.
For 35 years, local leaders have stepped forward, providing that local layer of funding. In fact, 24 of California’s 58 counties, representing eight of every 10 Californians, have taxed themselves for specific transportation improvements.
These self-help counties and local funds have accounted for nearly half of our state’s transportation dollars. From San Diego to Sacramento, self-help counties have a record of on-time and on-budget delivery that has earned the super-majority support of voters and taxpayers.
More and more, private employers are also stepping up – not only contributing through tax dollars, but voluntarily funding improvements that ease congestion at no taxpayer expense.
In the Bay Area, this includes a private shuttle bus network that takes tens of thousands of cars off the roads everyday. For every employer-funded shuttle we see, that’s 41 cars that we no longer see on our roads and highways. In fact, if these privately funded employer shuttles were a public agency, it would be the sixth-largest transit agency in the Bay Area.
Of course, a key link in the funding chain is the federal government. While it was encouraging when House and Senate leaders went to the White House two weeks ago to discuss a $2 trillion infrastructure deal, we need to make sure the president and Congress move forward with specific legislation to fund transportation improvements.
It took us decades of neglect to dig ourselves into the massive pothole that represents California’s transportation system. We won’t dig ourselves out overnight.
Yet with the new SB 1 state funds, the ongoing investments through local and regional measures, the unprecedented actions of private employers and the hope that the federal government will move forward, I’m more optimistic than ever that California can replace brake lights with green lights and give our 39 million citizens the break that they deserve – a break from gridlock.