September 2016 Transit Briefing

by: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Public safety and national politics pretty much dominated the news this last summer. Major regional transit development stories were relatively quiet. However, there was quiet a bit of activity happening at the state level with new proposed transportation laws and reforms among other things.

Labor Unions Obstruct CA Affordable Housing but Lawmakers pass a stronger Density Bonus Bill

If you read my last few posts that covered the failure of the state to pass the Smarter Smart Growth Law, you know I was pretty ticked off.

It's not because Governor Jerry Brown's original streamlining proposal didn't pass. That wasn't my beef. But it was how the proposed policy to streamline the regulatory process to expand infill transit oriented residential development got voted down in relation to the housing supply crisis: Special interests dictating the rule of law in the state.

To be clear, special interest groups and lobbies like labor, developers, environmentalists, businesses, and local governments all have a constitutional right to voice opinion to the state government. I have no issue with that. And they need to be able to speak out because it is a patriotic duty to bring valid issues to the attention of lawmakers in our democratic republic. The Transit Coalition gets involved too with state officials in promoting policies that will improve the efficiency of our transportation networks whether one drives, bikes, or rides public transit. Such participation is supposed to spark robust and productive public debate which should yield straight and fair laws that will benefit us all and make the world a better place.

What is wrong is for a special interest group to have total power or direct influence over legislative decisions, especially for issues that affect each and every one of us like runaway housing prices and long distance commuting. Speaking out is good, but collusion is bad. And that's what happened with Brown's latest attempt to propose a variation of the Smarter Smart Growth Law. Both the labor and environmental lobby fully objected to the legislation--I don't understand way--and rather than confronting them with alternative realistic solutions that would benefit the workforce, the state's natural ecosystems, and We the People, the pandering lawmakers simply sided with their lobbies, ignored the issue and walked away.

It's that type of pandering and greed of power that results in righteous anger from We the People, because it is a disgrace to our system of government. When state regulations obstruct the development industry from providing housing infrastructure for our growing population that results in unjustified market prices, it should be pure common sense for the state to pass regulatory reform like the Smarter Smart Growth Law without excuse.

Thankfully, there were some good news on the Smarter Smart Growth Law. This story has received national attention as the Wall Street Journal ran an article last week describing this mess as well as covering similar pandering happening now in New York. Hardworking people in the Big Apple also have to deal with out of control housing prices. The public needs to be made more aware of this situation and the word is getting out by the national press. Good.

Plus, an 11th hour bill to better enforce the state's density bonus law passed with bipartisan support with the expectation that Brown will sign it. AB 2501 will grant developers permits for up to 35 percent of additional building space if their plans included affordable housing units. Local governments would not be allowed to impose additional per-project requirements on developers that use the 2005 Density Bonus law.

In addition, lawmakers passed a Granny Flats regulatory reform bill which allows property owners relief from local government red tape when building accessory dwelling units on their land.

Both bills if signed into law will help things out, but it's only a small piece of the Smarter Smart Growth Law, and more has to be done to allow the industry get market housing prices and rents under control with additional inventory so that living costs are better inline with working salaries and other areas of the economy.

But one thing is for sure: This special interest collusion that obstructed the Smarter Smart Growth Law has to stop. We cannot allow such groups to dictate We the People.

State Transit Funding and Policy

As you may know, the State of California has been a critical funding source for transportation projects and transit agencies within the state. We the People have declared over and over again through several statewide ballot measures and court cases that the state government may not use dedicated-transportation dollars for other programs. That includes all state taxes and fees collected from the gas pump, no matter how the state tries to spin or redefine the revenue collection process. Gas sales taxes, fuel excise taxes, and vehicle taxes and fees are transportation revenue the government collects that needs to be purposed back for transportation.

According to this chart released by the Board of Equalization, state fuel revenue has been clocking in on average of around $6 billion per year since 2005:
That's well more than $60 billion over a 10 year period. This money is supposed to go our transportation systems and Southern California should be getting the lion's share simply due to our population demographics. Had this been happening, we would already have MetrolinkMax with first-rate connecting bus transit services, and the H.O.T. Express Lane projects for the 91, I-10, and I-15 would have been built and fully paid for long ago complete with rapid express bus transit infrastructure and toll free non-transponder carpooling. But this is clearly not happening and our clogged and decaying freeways tell the truth.

The state was debating the next spending plan which includes further increasing the fuel tax but what good is that if they continue to raid the transportation accounts and spend the money on other programs? This must stop because as cars become more and more fuel efficient, fuel revenues will go down and that $6 billion per-year kitty will eventually need to be replaced. Other lawmakers are demanding that existing transportation tax and fee revenues be spent on transportation.

Although the legislature adjourned without passing the $7.5 billion funding bill, there is some hope that it will pass later this year. But the politics-as-usual needs to stop. Both sides need to come up with a fair, workable solution to get Southern California moving and that includes spending surface transportation-related tax and fee revenue on surface transportation. But at least this one does not appear to be driven by the special interests.

Other last-minute bills that made it to the Governor's desk include the ban of criminal penalties for minors if they commit fare evasion. SB882 was signed into law Monday which prevents minors from being charged with a crime for failure to pay transit fares, although youth fare evaders can still be subject to a tough administrative fine if caught. So be sure to do the right thing and pay the first time around.

Another transportation-related bill that passed and awaiting the Governor's signature involved taxi regulation reform. AB 650 would prohibit local governments from controlling taxi rates or limiting the number of taxis that can serve an area. It would also allow cabs to pick up and drop off passengers outside specific local jurisdictions. This will allow them to better compete with the growing on-demand ridesharing industry led by Uber and Lyft. Cities will still be allowed to enforce non-discrimination policies where providers cannot refuse service to specific neighborhoods based on ethnicity or race alone and can require cab companies to accommodate people with disabilities. 

Strong evidence that Mass Transit Funding is not wasteful

Lastly, there were some more good news on the transit front. For those who believe that spending transportation money on mass transit is a waste of money, I invite you to see the ridership numbers for the Metro Expo Line in Los Angeles. The Expo Line has been way too popular. Those trains have been overly-packed with people as boarding demands have overwhelmed the system to the point where it has created standing-room only conditions and impacted on-time performance with the passenger volumes--still very minor and much better than sitting in miserable traffic gridlock through West LA. Metro is working with its contractor in getting additional train cars made, tested, and put into service as soon as possible to relieve the crowding.

It goes to show how public transportation is a key solution in moving large volumes of people from here to there. The 91 and I-15 freeway corridors are very similar, and they demonstrate why such transportation corridors need infrastructure other than additional traffic lanes. They need a strong regional passenger rail network and high occupancy vehicle lanes that can support a first-rate rapid transit system.