Friday, February 12, 2016

California’s New State Transportation Agency: Moving the Golden State Forward?

Below is an article featured in the Summer 2013 edition of the Davis Political Review.
This will be updated soon, as per requests from readers.

California’s New State Transportation Agency: Moving the Golden State Forward?
Greg Justice (02 June 2013)

Imagine for a moment California without transportation.  Going even deeper into that contemplation, picture San Francisco without MUNI or the cable cars, Los Angeles without suntans and caramel-colored clouds during rush-hour traffic, the San Pedro Bay without massive cargo ships, the Inland Empire and Central Valley without freight trains or long distance commercial vehicles, or even Davis without bicycles. Transportation is an essential aspect of the California empire, whether for private mobility, commercial enterprise, or “personal development.” (Workplace code for calling-in sick while headed to Half Moon Bay.)

Beginning July 1st, California’s newest state agency – the California Transportation Agency (“CTA”) – will become operative, and for many reasons, this represents a step in the right direction for the state with the largest – and most-complex – transportation system.  From a much needed centralized agency focused on keeping the Golden State moving, CTA is long overdue, and will be an important resource in California’s government.

Birth of a New Agency
The idea of CTA comes from the Governor’s Reorganization Plan #2 (“GRP-2”), introduced in March 2012.  CTA brings together under one roof the State’s existing transportation-related entities: Department of Transportation (Caltrans), Department of Motor Vehicles, California Highway Patrol, Board of Pilot Commissioners, Governor’s Office of Traffic Safety, California High Speed Rail Authority, as well as the California Transportation Commission (“CTC”).  In its recommendation to the Legislature, the Little Hoover Commission (“Commission”) noted, “The plan represents a first step in the much-needed restructuring of California state government and improves clarity, organization and accountability by eliminating agencies, forming new agencies around better focused missions, and bringing more state activities under agency structures for greater administrative efficiency.”  Despite widespread approval of GRP-2, the Commission and stakeholders expressed concerns of potentially diminished independence and increased political influence for several existing bodies.  For the proposed CTA, the concern was with reference to CTC, as well as potential ambiguities and conflicts from Government Code sections 13975 and 13978. Following several legislative hearings by the Assembly Special Committee on Reorganization, and a joint-meeting of the Senate Governmental Organization and Governance & Finance Committees, GRP-2 became enacted July 2nd of last year, and will commence operations this July 1st.

Need for the New Agency
Prior to CTA, transportation functions in state government were housed primarily in the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency (“BT&H”), with the exception of the High-Speed Rail Authority and CTC, which were “stand-alone” entities – having no direct agency affiliation.

As far back as 1992 – which may seem pre-historic to those reading this, the Commission called for the establishment of a transportation agency separate from business and housing programs.  In its report, Transportation: Keep California Moving, the Commission found, “The state consensus to develop a system encompassing a variety of transportation modes is hindered by a highway bias in Caltrans and a lack of advocacy in the Governor's Cabinet.”  Further addressing this finding, the Commission placed as its first recommendation, “The Governor and Legislature should enact legislation to establish a new Transportation Agency.”  As to why the Wilson Administration never materialized the recommendation during his reorganizational agenda is not known. While no leadership or administration for CTA has been announced as this goes to print – including a potential agency secretary, one can assume Governor Brown will utilize existing transportation staff and management from BT&H, thereby minimizing administrative costs.

According to Assembly Legislative Analyst Malcolm Maclachlan, the main benefits of CTA would be: “1) The opportunity to gain a better understanding of overall transportation needs; 2) The leadership benefit of a CTA secretary who reports directly to the Governor, and who may be able to develop long term solutions to the state's transportation funding shortfall; and, 3) The ability to prioritize transportation needs and coordinate cost-effective uses of limited transportation funds” (Committee Analysis, 2).  Further, state government will serve with a greater voice California’s transportation needs, already viewed as important by the electorate; the last decade alone voters approved nearly $20 billion in general obligation bonds for transportation infrastructure.

Concerns of the New Agency
While one would expect a certain degree of hesitation with such a monumental change in state government, the overwhelming issue brought forward in GRP-2 hearings related to CTC’s independence and autonomy. To a lesser degree, attendees and policy makers also expressed distress over the state’s transportation and housing objectives laid out in the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008 (“SB 375”), and how a new agency could greatly hinder policy implementation.

Before the reorganization, CTC was one of two stand-alone transportation entities whose agency independence was ideal for effective political insulation.  CTC was created in 1978 by Assembly Bill 402 to integrate the functions of four prior – and highly ineffective – bodies: State Aeronautics Board, Highway Commission, State Transportation Board, and the California Toll Bridge Authority.  CTC’s duties include the programming of funds for the construction of highway, passenger rail and transit improvements throughout California, as well as serving as a consultant to the Governor and state and federal legislative bodies for transportation policy.  In accomplishing these responsibilities, CTC’s political and administrative independence have allowed for truly objective and deliberate funding decisions.  Because CTC would now reside in CTA, and thus, become subject to the Administration’s actions, the Associated General Contractors of California and California's Regional Transportation Planning Agencies raised the concern of future independence during reorganizational hearings.  To address these concerns, Assemblymember Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo) authored Assembly Bill 1458 establishing “firewall” language in Government Code section 14534.1, providing continued independence of CTC, even as it becomes housed in CTA.  With overwhelming support from stakeholders and the Administration, the bill passed the Senate and Assembly with a 36-0 and 79-0 vote, and was signed by Governor Brown on July 17, 2012.

Another concern for CTA – although not as major as the independence of CTC – was the state’s effort of tackling climate change though SB 375.  Enacted in 2008, SB 375 makes California the first state to focus on the integration of housing, transportation and land use decisions in an effort to reduce associated greenhouse gas emissions.  SB 375 is a major part of the state’s package for addressing and mitigating climate change.  Prior to CTA, transportation and housing planning were under BT&H, allowing for a seamless coordination of policy between the agency’s respective bodies.  CTA’s establishment raised the fear that a new transportation agency will greatly impede SB 375’s effort by administratively separating main actors.  However, even before CTA, several bodies in SB 375’s efforts were already separated, and yet still maintained the statute’s objective – the Air Resources Board residing in the California Environmental Protection Agency, while the Department of Housing and Community Development, the California Housing Finance Authority and the Department of Transportation reside in BT&H.  The Governor’s office has suggested all planning for SB 375 could be coordinated through the Strategic Growth Council (“SGC”), presently moderating this effort.  SGC was created in 2008 by Senate Bill 732 to advise the Administration and Legislature on sustainable development, and provide grants to various governments for this purpose.  In its current statutory framework, SGC does not have the direct authority to handle transportation and housing coordination among departments, making it a weak bridge for SB 375.  However, just as the issue of CTC independence was addressed, stakeholders and Legislators should work together to provide the statutory authority for SGC to accomplish coordination between departments and agencies, thereby making it a stronger policy link.

With the independence of CTC continuing in CTA, and the potential for continued coordination among SB 375’s major state departments through a statutorily strengthened SGC, CTA’s establishment July 1st can go forward without further worries of its organizational effectiveness.

The Journey Ahead
Despite presently lacking staff, management, and most importantly, an agency secretary, CTA’s future appears rewarding.  CTA will provide the necessarily unified policy presence as California moves forward tackling climate change from transport, diversifying options for private mobility, building the nation’s first true high speed rail system, as well as continuing our citizen’s growing desire for intercity rail and sustainable mass transportation.  With all concerns and benefits considered, the California Transportation Agency is just the vehicle for moving the Golden State forward.

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