Commentary

Southern California’s Half-Trillion Dollar Transportation Plan Won’t Ease Congestion

Plan plagued by questionable funding, vague goals unrelated to transportation

The Southern California Association of Governments recently approved minor changes to its long-range transportation plan but failed to fix the plan’s biggest problems – questionable funding sources, vague goals unrelated to its mission of improving transportation, and unnecessary environmental standards that help worsen traffic congestion.

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) works on regional issues impacting the counties of Orange, Imperial, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura and is preparing an updated long-term transportation plan intended to handle the area’s population growth and changes up to the year 2040. As a string attached to the federal funding it gives to cities and counties, Congress mandates these long-range transportation plans. Unfortunately, many of today’s transportation plans, including Southern California’s, include unclear, nonmeasurable goals that have nothing to do with transportation.

While past plans focused on quantitative goals like decreasing the travel time from Santa Ana to Los Angeles by five minutes or increasing transit service to at least 50 percent of the region, SCAG’s 2012 plan focused on subjective feel-good goals like improving residents’ quality of life, allowing residents to lead more active lifestyles and improved environmental and health outcomes. The plan de-emphasizes moving goods and people and reducing traffic congestion in favor of livability, prosperity and sustainability.

Despite Southern California preparing to spend half a trillion dollars over the next 20 years on this infrastructure, shipping and truck delays on freeways and arterial roads are expected to worsen significantly. For commuters, freeways and major roads are expected to remain at least as congested as today.

In 2035, there will be 30 freeway segments where average speeds are predicted to slow to less than 15 mph during afternoon rush hour. These gridlocked segments are not just a roadway problem but also a mass-transit problem because many of these freeways lack car pool lanes or express toll lanes, so buses and van pools will be stuck in the same traffic.

Many regions use California Senate Bill 375 – the Sustainable Communities Act – to help justify long-range plans’ focus on development patterns that don’t do what they should: reduce traffic and speed-up travel times. SB375 sets regional targets for greenhouse gas emissions. 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 percentage of unhealthy-air days in Southern California has decreased 74 percent in 12 years.

But perhaps even more worrying than the vague sustainability and environmental goals, the long-range plan lacks a clear stream of funding. SCAG estimates that the region has $305 billion in current revenue for transportation. However, $119 billion of this total is projected local sales tax revenue that is subject to major swings based on the economy. If the U.S. or Southern California should enter another recession, the region may only collect a fraction of this total.

SCAG is also counting on $33 billion in federal funding, but with declining federal gas tax revenue and the politics in Congress, there is no guarantee federal funding will remain consistent in two years, let alone over two decades.

Finally, SCAG is counting on $220 million in new revenue from a combination of additional sales taxes along with new Internet taxes and mileage-based user fees. The assumption that any of these new revenue sources will be approved and actually fund these projects is questionable, at best.

So how do we reform the long-range transportation planning process?

First, the primary goal must be mobility – moving people and goods quickly and efficiently. The plan should also include specific, measurable goals so taxpayers can clearly determine if the money has been spent effectively to make it faster and easier to get places across Southern California. Finally, funding sources should be clear and secured. The region’s transportation system is far too vital to the economy to depend on a long-range plan with yet-to-be-determined sources of funding. It’s crucial that SCAG get this right.

Baruch Feigenbaum is a transportation policy analyst at Reason Foundation. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Baruch Feigenbaum is senior managing director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation and lead author of Reason's Annual Highway Report.