Getting creative to pay for transportation as funding dries up

150 150 John Guenther

Rendering of the proposed California high-speed rail project in Bakersfield. (Photo Credit: California High Speed Rail Authority)

A small study from Minnesota showed people living near quality public transit can make them happier. Whether it’s because the respondents have easy access to cool destinations via light rail or they don’t get to experience as much road rage, the study doesn’t distinguish.

What’s not causing much happiness is figuring out how pay for transportation projects, like the light rail from the study or fixing the roads people are raging on. Funding has become a major headache for government agencies, especially when federal sources are becoming unreliable, as shown when the federal THUD bill was shelved recently and one version of which zeroed out all TIGER grants, a competitive grant fund for infrastructure projects.

Those in the California transportation infrastructure game are becoming even more worried. The head of the transit advocacy group Transportation California told the Sacramento Business Journal (paywall) that funding the capital region’s transportation needs will be increasingly challenging with federal funds drying up and state infrastructure bonds running out soon.

“We’re going to be literally at the brink of a fiscal cliff in money that’s available for transportation,” Will Kempton said to the Journal.

Others are worried the state is trying to do too much with what funding is available. State Senator Andy Vidak (SD16) thinks that the state high-speed rail plan should go back on the ballot for a re-vote, arguing that, since voters approved it five years ago, the costs have ballooned too much and the state should be paying instead for things like water supply and career tech education.

Addressing Vidak’s argument, Robert Cruickshank from the California High-Speed Rail Blog, actually agrees with revisiting the project via the ballot but not for the same reason as Vidak. Cruickshank says the new vote would help the state to start exploring more options for funding its projects, and not just the HSR.

“The November 2016 ballot would be an excellent place for a statewide transportation funding package that includes funding to complete HSR and meet other needs,” wrote Cruickshank.

What if the feds cut funding for high-speed rail? He says one of those options California should be exploring could be in a story that SPUR produced last year showing ways the state could pay for the HSR project without any federal funds, including employing a broad range of sources like tolls, raising the gas tax and the altering the vehicle license fee.

Something that will help California pay for more projects was the award last week of an extra $155 million from the feds after it was announced the state met all its 2013 transportation project federal deadlines. The state used its federal funds recently to help kickstart projects like the Caldecott Tunnel, a partnership project between local, state and federal agencies.

But finding the funds–and spending them fast enough to meet deadlines–is just one piece of the puzzle. State and regional transportation agencies will have to make sure their spending priorities are aligned with what regions need.

Joel Kotkin of New Geography made an interesting argument today that heavily advocating for rail projects like trying to use 19th century solutions to modern day problems and that the high-speed rail project will mostly just steal from other transit projects as it will only end up serving the affluent. He also points out that in spread-out cities like Los Angeles, only 6 percent of workers take transit to the office and spending billions more might not affect that number very much.

Whatever you think about Kotkin’s notion, it’s clear cities, regions and the state have to make sure they prioritize infrastructure projects differently than they do now: Instead of saying “Let’s spend all this money we have on something,” we should figure out what regions really need first, and then figure out the most efficient way of paying for those projects is. It doesn’t necessarily have to be rail going everywhere. It could be any number of ideas that would work best for a region.

That’s why there are Californians hard at work on the California Economic Summit’s Infrastructure Action Team, which is drafting as you read this, a statewide plan for funding transportation projects, including actions the state could take in the coming year. You’ll see more about it next month as the Summit draws closer and takes place on November 7-8 in downtown Los Angeles, co-presented by California Forward.

And as some of us at California Forward live and work in Los Angeles, we’d have to agree that figuring out how to pay for some quality transportation projects certainly would make us happier.  


John Guenther

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