The transportation paradox

Prop. 42 gives more money to roads and transit, but rival activists continue to differ over priorities

Alicia Ceja embodies the state’s transportation challenge, wanting both better roads and alternatives to driving.

Alicia Ceja embodies the state’s transportation challenge, wanting both better roads and alternatives to driving.

Photo by Larry Dalton

On a typical day, if there are no accidents on I-5, it takes about an hour for Alicia Ceja to drive from her home in Manteca to her job in Sacramento. It’s the kind of trip most people would consider a nice weekend getaway drive. But for commuters like Ceja, that time on the road each day has become her “personal time.”

“I guess it’s kind of sad if you think about it like that,” she laughed, “but the time in my car is time to myself to unwind and just listen to the radio.”

Driving to and from work can take a lot of time these days. And space. In order to keep up with the growing number of commuters like Ceja, we add more roads while desperately trying to maintain the ones we have, since the ones we have are quickly filling up to capacity and slowing peak traffic. This is the induced traffic theory: if you build it, they will come.

On March 5, Californians voted to let them come. In passing Proposition 42 by a landslide, California voters agreed to devote the sales tax from gasoline solely to fund transportation improvement projects.

“The problem is ‘improvement,’ ” warned Ann Kohl of the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS). “What does ‘improvement’ really mean?”

She noted that the word “improvement” is often slapped on to the name of a project to make it sell. But if it doesn’t change the status quo, is the system really being improved?

In fact, Prop. 42 simply extends the provisions of the Transportation Congestion Relief Program, which was enacted in 2000, allocating our gasoline sales tax revenue to be used for transportation purposes.

Specifically, the language in the official voter’s guide broke it down like this: 20 percent of the funds would go to public transit, another 40 percent would go to “transportation improvements,” and the last 40 percent to “local streets and roads improvements.”

But the word “improvement” means different things to different folks. For environmentalists, improving local streets and roads means giving us more sidewalks. Improving transportation means giving us more bike lanes or dedicated public bus lanes.

“Some of these concepts could be funded with Prop. 42 if the money isn’t dissipated in other ways,” Kohl said. But because the language in Prop. 42 is so fuzzy, she is still unclear about the true implications of the measure.

She’s thrilled, of course, that mass transit is getting a slice of relief out of Prop. 42, but what about that other 80 percent of the pie? Will the funds really be used to improve our system? Or is this legislation a perpetuation of our existing bad habits and priorities?

For Joseph Cruz, executive director of Citizens Alliance for Transportation Solutions (CATS), improvement means “immediate impact on mobility,” which really means widening the roads, adding more lanes, building more connectors, eliminating bottlenecks, fixing the potholes, and keeping up with what we’ve got.

Furthermore, he believes that building additional highways will get people off surface streets and provide better safety to drivers and to the community. Surely, that must be considered improvement.

According to information from the Texas Transportation Institute and the Federal Highway Administration, California currently ranks number one in the nation for having the most congested roads and roads in need of repair. Predictably, Los Angeles and San Francisco hold the top two spots for having the worst roads, and Sacramento ranks 15 in the country.

“It’s been a generation of neglect really,” said Larry Fisher, executive director of Transportation California, a coalition of contractors and organizations interested in improving California’s transportation systems. He noted that our roads were primarily built in the 1960s and started to wear out starting with Governor Ronald Reagan and onto his successor Jerry Brown. Simply, not enough money was put into maintaining our roads.

We did, however, build more cars and begin driving bigger, heavier cars, which consequently wore down our roads even faster. In response, we built more roads so we could continue to drive more. The more we drove, the faster our roads deteriorated. The worse our roads got, the more damage they did to our cars, and the more we demanded better roads.

“I guess it was the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland who said sometimes we have to run very fast just to stay in the same place,” Fisher chuckled.

Many are hoping that Prop. 42 would change all that and give a much-needed boost to our aging infrastructure. But will it? In a 1999 report by the California Transportation Commission, the total cost of rescuing our existing roads and transit system is estimated at around $118 billion.

“There’s a huge job to be done, and we’re not talking about paving over the state of California at all,” Fisher emphasized. “It’s about getting the maximum value out of our existing transportation systems.”

But not everybody agrees on how that should be done. While environmentalists like Ann Kohl are pleading for change that offers us more transportation choices, Joseph Cruz is not so sure people want those choices.

“For the most part we are an auto-dependent society, and to turn back the clock and change 50 years of planning is a difficult task,” he asserted. “We can spend 100 percent of our money on transit, and for the most part 75 percent of Sacramento residents will never take public transit even if it’ll stop in front of their doors.”

“So he’s basically deciding for us that we’re not going to use it,” countered Trinh Nguyen of the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), adding that Cruz’s perspective is a bit self-serving since groups such as CATS and Transportation California are mainly composed of people who build our roads—the contractors and unions who stand to benefit from more road projects.

“Where you have transit, people will use it,” she insisted. “They would rather do that than sit in traffic. We can’t assume that people are going to choose one way or another if we haven’t even given them that choice.”

While commuters like Alicia Ceja would definitely like to see our existing roads widened and improved, she also wouldn’t mind having a public transit system like BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to accommodate the Sacramento region. It would give her car a much-needed break from the constant wear and tear, she said. And she would love to let someone else do the driving for once so she could utilize her commute time for reading or working on her laptop.

At this point, she doesn’t have that choice, and represents that challenge California faces in an attempt to overhaul its system. Do you fix the roads that Ceja uses, or use that money to give her alternatives to driving, possibly while allowing roads to deteriorate more?

“If you can fill a bus up, we can support that,” said Cruz. “But if you’re going to run a bus that has three people, and it’s basically getting subsidized by state and federal money, you’re taking away money that can be used on highway projects that will benefit 91 percent of people who move around in our area.”

“So that just says they’re thinking about congestion for today,” Nguyen said, “whereas if you’re looking at the long term, you need to make other types of investments.”

That means not putting all of our lemons in one basket by investing heavily in one mode of transportation and over-burdening one system. The strength of any investment portfolio lies in its diversity, she explained.

“If people have no other way to get around, if all you can do is get on roads,” she added, “it’s going to increase congestion.”

In other words, if you build it—at least in the case of roads, if not public transportation—they will come.