While Congress Fiddles, Southern California Shows How to Get Things Done

When a delegation from the L.A. Chamber of Commerce visited Congress earlier this month to lobby for passage of the federal surface transportation reauthorization, members were greeted warmly by federal transportation officials who noted that L.A. was providing a model for Congress on how to get things done.

"You check your politics at the door," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who with U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Federal Transit Administration head Peter Rogoff, complimented the chamber delegation on the bold and broad business-labor-environmental coalition that is supporting massive investment in L.A.'s public transportation system.

Congress has bogged down in partisan and ideological brinksmanship over the transportation reauthorization -- and many other issues -- so often during the past four years that the federal transportation bill will have to be extended for the ninth time when the current extension runs out March 31. While the Senate approved its bipartisan version of the bill this week under the leadership of Senator Boxer and Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) had to abandon his bill, which linked infrastructure programs with domestic oil production.

The lack of a federal bill means states haven't had the funding assurances they need to begin major multi-year infrastructure projects that could provide hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs to American workers.

While the grand coalition that championed the Measure R sales tax for transportation in L.A. County in 2008 is one example of how to get things done in a bipartisan manner, another perhaps even grander example of how cooperation, community and bipartisanship can yield impressive results is currently underway in Southern California.

Every four years the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) adopts a 25-year regional transportation plan (RTP) that has to "meet conformity" with the federal Clean Air Act in order for the six-county region to continue to receive federal transportation funding. During this planning cycle the RTP was for the first time paired with a "sustainable communities strategy"(SCS) -- mandated by the state's new GHG reduction law, SB 375 -- that lays out a plan to reduce GHGs by reducing driving.

The public rarely shows up at SCAG, an agency governed by a bipartisan 83-member regional council, but the SCS has drawn hundreds of people into SCAG's planning process. Meetings have been crowded with advocates demanding more transit, bike lanes and pedestrian improvements and more affordable housing choices, and doctors and academics testifying that in order to deal with the health and obesity crisis the region needs to create "active environments" -- because auto-oriented communities have literally engineered physical activity out of our lives.

The broad interest in charting a new direction in community and transportation planning has resulted in a remarkable $524 billion regional plan that enhances the region's economic future and jobs growth by reducing traffic congestion despite a projected growth in population of four million residents. The plan doubles the number of people who will be living near "high-quality transit" (a bus or train that comes every 15 minutes or less), almost doubles the number of jobs near transit, and more than triples funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

The plan promises to yield a $3,000 annual savings to each household because of lower auto, fuel, water and energy costs, and a 24 percent reduction in pollution-caused respiratory problems, resulting in a $1.5 billion/year less in health care costs. The plan envisions future revenue sources including the substitution of a fee on vehicle miles traveled, a "VMT fee," for the current gas tax.

There seems to be general agreement across the region that our single-minded focus on building single-family residential neighborhoods connected by highways has reached the point of diminishing returns. Demographic changes -- a majority of single-person households and a rapidly aging population -- and rising gas prices are causing Southern Californians to demand a wider range of housing and transportation choices.

L.A. County voters demonstrated this when they passed the Measure R sales tax in 2008 to provide $40 billion for transportation -- $30 billion of it for transit -- by almost 70 percent. The Measure R investment together with the bike and pedestrian improvements and the increase in jobs and housing near stations is responsible for much of the GHG reductions in the RTP/SCS. And in the final run-up to plan adoption, SCAG staff may be recommending even more funding for transit, bike and pedestrian projects.

Prior to passing the transportation bill in the U.S. Senate, Senator Inhofe said he's always believed "conservatives should be big in two areas: national defense and infrastructure." We can only hope that the spirit of collaboration and bipartisanship evidenced both in the U.S. Senate and in Southern California -- and the acknowledgment that transportation investments and the jobs they create are critical -- will inspire the U.S. House of Representatives to move forward.