Governor's Transportation and Climate Actions Stir Controversy in California

California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order last month directing state agencies to consider climate goals in their spending and operations. Two weeks later, three highway widening projects were deleted, and locals are crying foul.

6 minute read

October 18, 2019, 10:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


David Eppstein / Wikimedia Commons

Just days before Gov. Newsom left to partake in Climate Week NYC last month, he announced a major executive action to involve state agencies in the effort to reduce carbon emissions in the Golden State. With over 41% coming from transportation, and that sector seeing consecutive increases in the last five years, the inability to reduce transportation emissions will be greatly responsible for the state's failure to meet its 2030 climate goals, according to Next 10's 2019 California Green Innovation Index.

According to the governor's Sept. 20 announcement, "the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) is directed to invest its annual portfolio of $5 billion toward construction, operations and maintenance to help reverse the trend of increased fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation sector."

CalSTA, in consultation with the Department of Finance, is also directed to align ​transportation spending, programming and mitigation with the state’s climate goals to achieve the objectives of the state’s [2017] Climate Change Scoping Plan [see PDF], where feasible. Specifically the Governor is ordering a focus for transportation investments near housing, and on managing congestion through innovative strategies that encourage alternatives to driving.

Taken literally, that could mean that Caltrans would not allow highway widening, which results in induced demand, causing increased vehicle miles traveled.

The actual executive order, N-19-19 [pdf], spells out the transportation-climate alignment in more detail, directing CalSTA to reduce vehicle miles traveled through smart growth investments and to "fund transportation options that contribute to the overall health of Californians and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as transit, walking, biking, and other active modes..."

[Correspondent's note: This part of the executive order was referenced by the governor is his controversial veto of SB 127 which would have required Caltrans to apply "complete streets" principles to state highways in urban areas.]

Environmental significance of executive order goes largely unnoticed 

Streetsblog California was one of the few outlets to recognize the significance of the landmark executive order. "[F]or the first time, the state’s top leader is calling for transportation funding to align with state goals on climate and the environment, and to help people cut back on driving," wrote Melanie Curry in her second piece on the executive order.

Advocates for clean air, active transportation, and housing have been pushing for something like this for years; the California Air Resources Board has been saying it’s needed for quite a while. But the agencies charged with transportation funding decisions – Caltrans and the California Transportation Commission – have been slow to come around.

Draft 2020 Interregional Transportation Improvement Program

What didn't go unnoticed, though, were changes made to what Curry describes in her third piece (and source article for this post) as a "sleepy interregional transportation plan" released Oct. 1, 11 days after the governor's announcement on realigning transportation spending with climate goals. The purpose of the Draft 2020 Interregional Transportation Improvement Program (ITIP) [pdf], a biennial report prepared by CalSTA, is "to improve interregional mobility for people and goods across the State of California on highway and passenger rail corridors of strategic importance."

The ITIP is a program of projects funded through the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) that obtains funding primarily through the per-gallon State tax on gasoline.

Critics claim bait and switch on gas tax funds

The draft ITIP "calls for $61.3 million to be 'held in reserve for priority rail projects,'" reports Bryan Anderson for the Sacramento Bee on Oct. 8, one of several outlets from the Central Valley to notice the juxtaposition of deferred road projects and designation of funds for rail, coming 10 days after the governor's climate-transportation executive order.

Meanwhile, Caltrans wants to halt a pair of highway projects in the Central Valley and another project in San Luis Obispo, though the three projects could secure funding at a later time.

Highway 99, which passes through Fresno, stands to lose out on $17 million to widen lanes in Madera and Tulare counties. The state will also refuse to provide $15.5 million to widen Highway 46 in San Luis Obispo County.

"Fresno Assemblyman Jim Patterson blames it on Governor Gavin Newsom's September executive order, which he says diverts SB-1 gas tax money to projects like rail," reports Corrin Hoggard for ABC Action News (see video).

"This is classic bait and switch," the Republican said. "We were promised streets and roads and highways. We're getting anything but."

"It's very frustrating and goes to the whole idea of people need to ride more trains and mass transit, but that's just not realistic in every part of the state," said Kuyler Crocker, Tulare County Board of Supervisors' chairman, reports Joshua Yeager for the Visalia Times-Delta.

Setting the record straight

On Oct. 9, the day after a California Transportation Commission (CTC) meeting [pdf] in Modesto, CalSTA Secretary David S. Kim attempted to clarify the executive order, noting that the decision to deprogram the three highway widening projects was made earlier, that gas tax funds are restricted largely to road purposes per Article 19 of the state constitution, and that "the state will continue the 'fix it first' approach outlined in SB 1," aka the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017.

“Having said that, we are legally required to meet climate goals through AB 32 and SB 32. The transportation sector contributes more than 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Therefore, we must take the necessary steps to reduce the share of greenhouse gas emissions that come from the transportation sector.

“Not only are we mandated and obligated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is simply the right thing to do. This is why we need to rethink how transportation planning and investments are executed and what the desired outcomes ought to be. The Governor’s Executive Order is just the beginning of that conversation, not the end..."

“Not only are we mandated and obligated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it is simply the right thing to do. This is why we need to rethink how transportation planning and investments are executed and what the desired outcomes ought to be. The Governor’s Executive Order is just the beginning of that conversation, not the end.

Did it do the trick?

Not by a long shot! Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton seized on the controversy in his piece on Monday.

The Newsom administration vehemently denies it’s a bait and switch. But it doesn’t deny attempting to move the money from roads to rail. It’s right there on a website and in print.

Skelton referenced last year's Proposition 6 campaign, an unsuccessful attempt to repeal the tax and fee increases associated with the Road Repair and Accountability Act.

So what the Newsom administration is attempting seems perfectly legal. It’s just politically tone deaf given what voters were promised, compounded by their long-standing mistrust of politicians.

And the furor hasn't subsided. "Newsom, during a Wednesday tour of a Project Homeless Connect [in San Francisco], addressed sharp criticism this week from Republicans and some Democrats on the gas tax issue," reports Carla Marinucci for POLITICO California Playbook.

“I’m confused. ... I think they’re conflating things. Some are doing it, respectfully, intentionally. SB 1 is locked in,'' he insisted..."That money is used for its intended purposes, period, full stop,'" he said. "One cannot legally redirect those dollars."

The final word will come from the California Transportation Commission, noted ABC's Hoggard. Their final public meeting on the ITIP was held on Tuesday in Irvine.

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