Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · April 23, 1997

Mass Transit Programs In California Could Take Big Hit Under Proposed Changes In Federal Transportation Law

Study Also Finds Benefits of Regional Transportation Planning Could Be Lost If Federal Programs Are Devolved to State

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 23, 1997–Mass transit programs in California’s major metropolitan areas could be hit hard by proposed changes in federal transportation policy and funding, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Efforts to regionalize and coordinate transportation planning across urban counties could also be weakened. Authored by researchers Paul Lewis and Mary Sprague, the study provides an analysis of California’s implementation of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) and of competing efforts in Congress to change the law. ISTEA is a major component of the discretionary transportation funding available to metropolitan areas. It will expire in September 1997, and there has been considerable debate about how rewriting the federal law may affect California.

Specifically, one ISTEA program–the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ)–has become a significant source of funding for bus and rail systems in California. In this fiscal year alone, mass transit programs are slated to receive nearly half of the $148 million in CMAQ funds available in the state.

“These funds have clearly become a key prop for mass transit in California,” Lewis says. “Elimination of this program might have dire consequences for public transportation systems already squeezed by past reductions in federal support.”

Yet, CMAQ funding could disappear under two of the three leading proposals currently before Congress. One of the proposals–an effort to “streamline” ISTEA by distributing funds to the states through a block-grant type arrangement–would end CMAQ as a separate program. Another calls for a “turn back” or devolution of responsibility from the federal government to the states for raising and spending transportation funds. This option could cause serious funding difficulties for mass transit programs because the state constitution limits the use of state gas taxes to road projects and rail construction (not operation).

By devolving responsibility to the state, the “turn back” proposal could also seriously undermine regional transportation planning. Why does regional planning matter? Lewis and Sprague’s study–Federal Transportation Policy and the Role of Metropolitan Planning Organizations–suggests that the development of regional transportation policies is critical for an efficient and well-planned transportation system. Current ISTEA law favors a metropolitan approach and gives regional entities–metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs)–authority to coordinate planning among counties in the four multicounty regions of the state. In many cases, MPOs also have the final say over which projects receive funding.

The state’s traditional approach to “regional planning” has been to further devolve authority to county-level agencies, not regional organizations. Counties have a more limited perspective than MPOs on regional transportation needs and have fewer incentives to coordinate their investments or consider the spillover effects of their decisions.

The study shows that more than one in six employed residents in California’s four multicounty regions (Southern California, San Francisco Bay area, Monterey Bay area, and Sacramento area) cross a county boundary in their commute to work. “Suburban sprawl and growing decentralization have made it increasingly difficult to build and maintain efficient transportation systems from a local or countywide perspective,” says Lewis. “Highways and mass transit are basically regionwide networks. And air pollution–much of which is caused by transportation–obviously spans local boundaries. The lack of a larger, regional vision could well lead to adverse long-term consequences for the state’s transportation network and environmental quality.”

The Public Policy Institute of California is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. David W. Lyon is President and CEO of PPIC.