Friday, October 30, 2009

California's Next 50 Years of Transportation

A mileage fee on road travel is 'probably the path we're headed towards,' said a transport expert yesterday, speaking at a conference addressing the transport needs of California over the next 50 years.

But Steve Heminger, Executive Director of MTC - Metropolitan Transportation Commission - admitted that responses to that idea were 'almost radioactive!'

A mileage fee 'has a lot to do with the issue of privacy,' he said, ie the government tracking where motorists go. 'I think it's a very significant hurdle.'

The sort of news that taxpayers beleaguered by the credit crunch don't want. Nor to hear that the state will need about $250 billion dollars over the next 50 years for transport, and expects to get only 25 per cent of that based on current revenues.

The conference, titled 'The Next 50 Years Addressing California's Mobility in a Time of Financial Challenge - Fixing Mass Transit!' took place yesterday afternoon at the Commonwealth Club of California, in San Francisco.

The harbinger of financial doom was Norma Ortega, Interim Chief Financial Officer of Caltrans, who outlined predicted spending against a backdrop of shrinking revenues. The credit crunch had caused a decline in taxes, especially sales taxes, and had affected State budget spending, she said.

Just to maintain the current system will cost $5 to $6 billion, and if maintenance is not kept up to date, major repairs further down the line will cost 'six times as much,' she said.

The conference, despite its title, focussed on the philosophy of transport and not specifics. With an audience of about 50 people and a representative also on the panel from the Federal government, questions and discussion were about principles.

And, as Steve Heminger said, 'if we don't know what to buy, how can we talk about figures?' Ideas, he said, 'usually come from a wish list of projects that get dusted off' when funding appears to be available. The problem with public acceptance for anything, he said, whether for bridges, schools or transport, is that the 'public is skeptical because they don't know what they are going to get.'

One of the key questions, he said, is if something new is built, will the public use it? Traffic congestion is usually the 'number one' problem, and, in his view, gas/petrol tax and toll charges today are 'relatively cheap' still. The toll on the Bay Bridge when it opened in the 1930s in today's currency would be 20 bucks, and gas tax today is 'much cheaper' than it was in the 1950s.

If the price of gas stays below $4, ridership of public transport is unlikely to increase, he said, unless more residential and mixed-use accommodation is built near stations.

Baby boomers, like himself, came in for a hit. The public will only get the transportation they're willing to pay for, and the problem with baby boomers? 'My generation are happy to live off the current system.'

He quoted Prsident Obama, quoting himself from 'The Good Book': 'It's not too late for us to set aside childish things.'

In other words, a refusal to look the financial implications in the eye and grasp the nettle, will either lead to a deteriorating transport system or, with borrowed money, impose a severe burden
on the next generation.

'We will continue to postpone and evade that responsibility at our peril,' he warned.

US government representative, Therese McMillan, Deputy Director of USDOT - US Department of Transportation's Federal Transit Administration - said that funding had been 'dramatically coloured by the recent recession.'

The government, especially where projects run into millions and billions of dollars, are expecting 50 per cent of non-Federal dollars 'to be added to the picture,' and are now examining the viability of both building and maintenance costs.

At question time, the first question not surprisingly was whether funding had affected the Bay Bridge. Norma Ortega said she didn't think funding was a factor. Mr Heminger agreed, and said the eastern span was 'showing it's age,' and further commented that 'without political interference' the new part of the bridge would be open today.

Funding wise, the Bay Area has $200 billion for a 25-year plan, but they could spend it all on maintenance without new projects. 'We have aging pains and growing pains and we can't afford to simply address the one,' he said.

Both he and Ms Ortega supported private funding partnerships, but Mr Heminger said this was of limited value as 'no-one from Goldman Sachs' would want to pay for a backlog!

Other 'tools in the toolbox' included tolls, freight charges, 'fast lane' passes, congestion fees, increasing bicycle and pedestrian paths, and for motorists to pay for their insurance at the gas pump. Ferries had some role, but Mr Heminger relegated them to a romantic past, dismissing a proposal made a few years ago for a ferry to bring travellers up to San Francisco from Half Moon Bay on the Pacific Ocean!

He also referred to high-speed rail as having something of a romantic image, and being less of a solution than assumed.

Ms McMillan pointed out that major projects often lasted for decades, and with population changes, the need was to have some flexibility to reduce obsolescence.

Environmental issues, the panel agreed, were another factor to be taken into consideration.

A second conference on identifying funding resources will be held in spring 2010.

For info on Commonwealth Club events including free podcasts:

pic: Moderator, Dr Asha Weinstein Agrawal, Director of MTI's - Mineta Transportation Institute - National Transportation Finance Center; Norma Ortega; Steve Heminger; Therese McMillan

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