One year later: Is Caltrans reformed yet?

Transportation is the biggest contributor to California’s greenhouse gas emissions. So if the state’s going to reduce emissions, the state’s primary transportation agency needs to be focused on that goal.

For Caltrans, that requires major reform.

This is important. Without the funding to support sustainability policies, we’ll simply keep building and widening highways that fill up with traffic and create more carbon pollution.

Last January, the State Smart Transportation Initiative (SSTI) released a report that called for sweeping reforms to Caltrans to help achieve the state’s climate change and environmental goals.

One year later

A little over a year later, we’re checking in on progress. The news is mixed. Here’s what the SSTI report recommended last year, with our take:

• Establish a mission, vision, and goals that align with current state law and policy:
Caltrans needs to realign its work to prioritize sustainability.

• Better match investments to policy goals:
Caltrans needs to put its funding where its goals are. One opportunity for this is the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). The California Transportation Commission (CTC) reviews STIP projects. Instead of focusing on minutiae of property acquisition and project costs, the CTC should focus on performance measurement, and whether funded projects actually support the state’s policies.

• Take advantage of the state’s new institutional structure to help drive change:
The recently created California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) has huge potential to reform the transportation system. CalSTA can provide policy guidance, cultural change, and coordinating investments. CalSTA should provide leadership and oversight to Caltrans to make sure the SSTI report recommendations are actually implemented.

One year later…

Good news first: Caltrans has implemented several recommendations from the SSTI report, including:

• A new mission, vision, and goals that include economy, livability, and the environment.

Endorsement of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) guidelines. This will include innovations such as buffered bike lanes! Caltrans’ endorsement should result in local streets and roads with more transportation options, such as public transit, biking, and walking.

Appointment of Dr. Steven Cliff as Assistant Director of Sustainability, to incorporate sustainability into all programs, policies and projects at Caltrans.

• Creation of five workgroups to implement recommendations from the SSTI report, specifically: performance and human resources, smart investments, strategic partnerships, innovation and risks, and communication

But we’re not there yet: While Caltrans has made good strides forward in its reform efforts, there’s still a way to go. A progress report from SSTI made a number of additional recommendations for continuing work.

Here’s the latest on the particular areas ClimatePlan is working on now:

• Continue to reform funding processes for new highway capacity:

Last summer, Caltrans hosted several workshops to improve the STIP guidelines. ClimatePlan participated in these workshops and submitted comment letters as well. Our advocacy paid off: the updated guidelines were much improved.

But we were disappointed when CalSTA released the California Transportation Infrastructure Priorities (CTIP) Workgroup’s STIP white paper. The CTIP Workgroup was established in 2013 to examine the state’s transportation system and make recommendations to CalSTA to improve it. To our dismay, the workgroup’s white paper, the result of a year’s worth of work, actually rejected the original recommendations from SSTI. See this comment letter from our partners.

Turns out reform doesn’t come overnight.

We’re not giving up. We’re working now on state transportation plans — the California Transportation Plan 2040 and the Interregional Transportation Strategic Plan — to continue reforming how funding happens.

This is important. If funding doesn’t support sustainability policies, we’ll simply keep building and widening highways that fill up with traffic and create more carbon pollution.

• Review staffing to make sure important activities have the resources required:

While we commend Caltrans’ creation of a high-level sustainability position, we’re concerned that this initiative has only one other staff member.

The “Smart Mobility” area also has few staff. And a recent petition (sign here) from ClimatePlan partners California WALKS, Safe Routes to School National Partnership, and others noted that the Caltrans-administered Active Transportation Program is critically under-resourced, with nearly $800 million in shovel-ready walking, bicycling, and Safe Routes to School projects and programs left unfunded last year.

Sustainability, smart mobility, and active transportation are critical parts of improving the state’s transportation system. We are meeting with Caltrans staff to see how we can support efforts to add staff capacity and resources to these important areas.

• Step up, Caltrans, and lead:

As the state Department of Transportation, Caltrans is in a clear leadership position. But the report notes a passive attitude at Caltrans. For example, staff talk about public transit as if the department is simply a pass-through for funding to transit providers. Or staff protest the idea of mapping transit routes against state highway systems, so the two can complement one another, because it would be too complicated. This lessens Caltrans’ own responsibility over the state transportation system and relinquishes its important role as a leader in transportation.

Our hope is that Caltrans will embrace its leadership role – through design guidance, the Active Transportation Program, and other efforts such as the Interregional Transportation Strategic Plan – to promote multimodalism.

ClimatePlan will to continue meet with Caltrans, CalSTA, and others as vested partners to support their reform efforts. We will also weigh in on the programs and guidance documents to ensure they align with our state’s ambitious planning and environmental goals.

A long road, but it’s worth it

Caltrans has started toward the goal, but it’ll take our encouragement to get there.

For more information on Caltrans’ reform efforts, check out its website or read the Caltrans Improvement Project report.

You can also comment on the 2040 California Transportation Plan (read our blog post to learn more).

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