Getting California's transportation fixes back on track

By Senator Anthony Cannella
Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Also published at The Modesto Bee:

For many of us, dealing with our dismal transportation system has become a way of life. We must build into our daily routines the expectation of sitting in traffic, taking longer routes to our destinations to avoid jams and looking out for potholes all along the way. Not only that, but much of the state has little or no access to adequate public transportation.

We’ve been hearing that we need to reinvest in our transportation infrastructure, but it is widely recognized that we need to make drastic changes in how we fund transportation.

It has been almost a year since Gov. Jerry Brown called for a special session of the Legislature to deal with these problems and the extreme shortage of transportation funding that has left California’s streets, roads, highways and bridges in poor to dangerous condition.

Yet, since that session, no real progress has been made. We’ve had a series of hearings across the state and several bills have been introduced, but there seems to be no political will to negotiate a package that will rebuild California’s crumbling roads.

And the longer we wait, the more it costs us.

Lost time spent stuck in traffic and the wear and tear exacted on our vehicles by poor roads are tangible costs the overwhelming majority of California families must pay. The air in the San Joaquin Valley is fouled by the increased emissions that come with the time spent idling.

The state is short $59 billion in deferred maintenance. The California Transportation Commission estimated the state will be $296 billion short by 2021.

California needs nearly $8 billion a year just to maintain the roads. Unfortunately, we have identified only $2 billion a year in funding, meaning that every year we are falling another $6 billion behind. A plan that only increases funding by $3 billion still leaves us $3 billion short each year.

Clearly, our state’s way of funding transportation has not kept up with our needs. Though we are building a high-speed rail (HSR) system in the San Joaquin Valley, there are additional rail systems that we could also prioritize. These would allow more of our residents to benefit from major public-transit investments.

One of those systems is the Altamont Corridor Express. The ACE train has a viable business plan to extend the system from Stockton through the Valley to Merced, where it could connect to HSR and then to Bay Area Rapid Transit. I have been advocating an infusion of $550 million from the state to leverage additional funding to make this a reality. I’ve been working with my fellow legislators, Gov. Brown and Union Pacific Corp., which owns the tracks, to make sure we can get it done once the funding is in place.

For the Central Valley, this would be a game changer.

Another priority in crafting a new plan is reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). If we are going to dedicate billions of dollars each year to transportation projects, we need to make sure those projects actually get built.

As an engineer, I have dealt with CEQA my entire career. I don’t believe CEQA requirements are bad, but certain groups have hijacked the process to delay or kill projects. I have asked my fellow legislators for a specific set of reforms that will provide communities the environmental review they expect yet prevent good projects from being stalled in court for years.

Some of the proposals look to change the way California brings in revenue and might bring increases. It is important we reform long-term funding mechanisms for transportation, but not unless those reforms also ensure that projects are built efficiently while providing the greatest benefit to our region.

I am optimistic we can achieve such a package this year. I look forward to working with my colleagues to reach a consensus to benefit future generations. California’s drivers and taxpayers deserve no less.