All metropolitan areas around the country are required to draft a long-range transportation plan. Congress mandated long-range plans when it passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act (ISTEA) of 1991. Congress’ intent was for metropolitan areas to plan for the regional movement of people and goods.
Unfortunately, many of today’s regional transportation plans include all sets of non-measurable goals that have nothing to do with transportation. Parts of the planning process have been captured by special interests that are seeking to use transportation funds for non-transportation purposes. Let’s examine one of the more “realistic” plans — Los Angeles — in more detail.
The planning framework is one of the biggest problems. Past plans would focus on quantitative goals to improve mobility such as decreasing the travel time from Los Angeles to Anaheim by five minutes or increasing transit service coverage to 50 percent of the region. But the 2012 plan focuses on “feel-good” goals centered on what political leaders want Los Angeles to become. Further, the plan deemphasizes mobility and congestion relief to focus more on Livability, Prosperity and Sustainability.
Predictably, this lack of focus does little to reduce congestion. Despite spending one half a trillion dollars over the next 20 years, truck delay on freeways is expected to worsen significantly. Truck delay on arterials will also deteriorate significantly. Both freeways and arterials are expected to remain at least as congested as today. The only relief will be in high occupancy vehicle lanes, where congestion will decrease slightly.
Worse, there will be 30 freeway segments where average speeds are less than 15 miles per hour during afternoon rush hour. These slow segments are not just a roadway problem but a transit problem as well. Since many of these freeways lack HOV lanes or express toll lanes, transit buses and vanpools are stuck in the same congested travel as everyone else.
The next problem is state mandates. California SB 375, in particular, makes congestion worse. The bill — The Sustainable Communities Act — sets regional targets for greenhouse gas uses. Yet, most scientists calculate that California has already met the 2025 standards set in the bill. Today’s vehicle fleet generates 98 percent fewer hydrocarbons, 96 percent less carbon monoxide and 90 percent fewer nitrous oxides than vehicles 30 years ago.
The biggest problem may be the region’s funding or lack thereof. SCAG estimates that the L.A. region has $305 billion in current revenue. However, $119 billion of this is local sales tax revenue that is subject to major swings based on the economy. $33 billion of this total is federal funding. Since federal government transportation funding relies on declining fuel tax revenue and general fund bailouts there is no guarantee federal funding will remain consistent after two years time, let alone 20 years. Finally, SCAG is counting on $220 million in new revenue. The assumption that any new revenue sources will be approved is questionable.
So how do we reform the planning process? First, transportation planning should be reformed so the primary goal is mobility. To the extent that environmental issues are real, they can be incorporated into the plan. But they should not unrealistically constrain development. Finally, plans should be required to be fiscally realistic without the need for unrealistically large new revenues.