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The latest streets and transportation news from Streetsblog California

Today’s Headlines

  • Butte County congressman wants to force California to repay high-speed rail funding (Capital Public Radio)
  • Deep dive on proposed reinstatement of bicycle commute tax benefit (Smart Cities Dive)
  • Will e-bikes catch on in L.A.? (Curbed)
  • CalSTA awards $13.1m to rail projects (RT&S)
    • Including a special event train serving Coachella festivals (Press-Enterprise)
  • Push to create a regional housing authority for the Bay Area (KQED)
  • Another way climate impacts are unjustly distributed: poor school districts pay to clean up rich commuters’ pollution (City Commentary)
  • Study finds corporations often renegotiate tax break incentives after contracts are finalized–to get even more (NextCity)
  • Caltrans seeks high school applicants in District 5 for employee-funded scholarships (BenitoLink)
  • MTC hires Iteris to prepare Bay Area for AVs and “enhance vehicle flow” (Traffic Technology Today)
  • Captain Marvel takes the LA Metro (LAist)

More California headlines at Streetsblog LA and Streetsblog SF

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Legislative Analyst Report on Active Transportation Program: Part 2

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

This is the second part of our two-part look at the first official analysis of the Active Transportation Program. In addition to recommending better data collection, as discussed in yesterday’s post, the LAO suggests the legislature reconsider some of the program’s objectives, and consider making changes to the way the program funding is decided. It also questions whether the program’s careful scoring process is efficient or necessary.

These two recommendations will be discussed below.

The Purpose of Three Distinct Categories

The LAO report notes that the ATP tends to fund similar projects across all three of its geographical components: Statewide, Small Urban and Rural, and Large Urban Regions. This prompts the LAO to ask whether the legislature should consider whether it has different objectives for the three categories.

The categories were the result of compromises made in the early days of formulating the program. The state’s Metropolitan Planning Organizations balked at being told what to do with their funding by the state, so a separate category was carved out for them. Now the ten largest MPOs receive forty percent of the total funding, with the amount going to each based on its population.

But less populated areas found themselves competing in a large statewide competition that included better funded and better prepared applicants, so they asked for their own carve-out. Small Urban and Rural areas are now guaranteed to receive ten percent of the total funding. The list of winning projects is based on the score they receive through the statewide program.

All the projects apply first through the statewide program, where they are scored by a team of volunteers. The highest scoring projects are chosen to receive funding through the statewide competition, and the ones that don’t make the cut are then considered in one of the other two categories, depending which they fit into.

The LAO report says the statewide category was created “to provide the opportunity for state-level decision-making on active transportation priorities and projects.” However, this actually applies to the entire ATP program, and is reflected in its goals and scoring criteria.

Nevertheless, the LAO writes that “we think [the statewide] component provides a key opportunity for the Legislature to consider changes to the goals, priorities, and types of projects funded. Accordingly, we recommend that the Legislature consider whether the role of the statewide component of the program should focus on larger, more transformative projects, as was envisioned when the ATP was established. We think such a focus makes sense because larger, more transformative projects are difficult to fund at the local level and therefore may only be possible through a state-administered program.”

The report goes on to recommend that the California Transportation Commission (CTC) investigate what is preventing larger projects from applying–whether it is lack of matching funds, limited capacity to manage them, or lack of encouragement or help on the part of ATP staff.

These questions are useful, although, as with the recommendation to require better data, the switch toward larger projects is already happening. With each successive funding cycle, the projects that apply and those that are awarded ATP funds have gotten larger and more ambitious. If this is the goal of the program, it is a good thing, although it also means that overall a smaller number of projects get funding. That is a problem primarily because the ATP program is limited, and only a small percentage of projects that apply are awarded. So far, in cycle four, only about ten percent of the projects got funding–although that percentage will go up when all the allocations have been made.

The LAO suggests the legislature consider restricting the statewide portion to focus only on large projects, with the other two funding smaller ones. However, this may not be the best way to organize the program. For one thing, it could restrict MPOs more than they are currently, if they can only support projects up to a certain size. Some of the larger MPOs encompass several counties and many cities, and their interest in building large projects would not necessarily be any less than the state’s.

The report also pushes for the MPOs to have more autonomy and flexibility. The authors suggest eliminating the requirement for regional projects to submit a state application, considering letting regions come up with their own project lists, or just handing funding over to the MPOs to do with as they wish.

But the MPOs already enjoy much of that flexibility. According to Laurie Waters, the CTC staff member who oversees the ATP, the MPOs are only required to consider projects that have applied through the statewide process. However, she says, their final priority list is up to them, and “they can adopt their own guidelines and scoring process.”

“They all do it differently,” she said. “For example, KERNCOG doesn’t have its own process or require a supplemental application; it just uses the statewide scoring to pick its projects. But MTC (the Bay Area’s MPO) wants a lot more say. They have a supplemental application that anyone who wants ATP money through them has to fill out. They also do their own scoring, based on their priorities.”

The MPOs are only limited in their project list in that all projects need to be scored against the state’s ATP rubric at the same time. The LAO believes that “it is possible that certain projects that are a high priority from a local or regional perspective are not eligible to be funded,” but provides no examples.

Another consequence of granting funds directly to the MPOs without requiring them to submit their lists first to the state program is that they “would no longer be subject to project-level oversight by the CTC or to CTC fund allocation for each phase of the project.” Whether that would be a good thing for the program’s objectives or not is subject to debate.

Questions about Scoring

The LAO report also includes a discussion of the application and scoring process, which it says is “cumbersome” and beyond the capacity of some agencies. This is a problem CTC staff has been trying to tackle since the program’s beginning, and is one of the reasons it offers free technical assistance to agencies that need it. The bigger problem is that there is not enough money in the ATP to fund every project that applies, or even most of them. The “cumbersome” application and the complicated scoring process is a product of the program’s attempt to be as transparent and fair as possible in the way it allocates that limited money.

The scoring process is most definitely complex. More than a hundred volunteers evaluate each eligible application against a scoring rubric that includes whether a project benefits a disadvantaged community, the quality of public participation in its development, and whether it is likely to be completed. CTC staff ensure consistency among the volunteer teams, working with them to resolve any large discrepancies in the scores.

CTC staff do not pick the winners; they create a list that ranks them by the scores given them by the volunteers, and start allocating from the top. There have been instances of projects being re-scored even after the scores have been made public, and it’s an important aspect of the program’s transparency that   this be a process the public can see and participate in.

The LAO report calls the scoring process “somewhat duplicative” since CTC staff double check the volunteer scores. This looks like an inefficiency, as does relying on a large number of volunteers that need a certain amount of training. The report concludes, “from the information available at the time of this analysis, it is unclear how the use of volunteer teams benefits the overall administration of the program, since CTC staff are also performing their own evaluation of each project.”

But the scoring process used by the ATP is an example of one of the best ways to involve public input in statewide decision-making. It ensures fairness, with several volunteers scoring each project and no one being allowed to score any project they may have a personal or professional interest in.

It’s one of the aspects of the Active Transportation Program that make it a model program. Instead of changing the ATP, maybe other state transportation funding programs should consider adopting some of its guidelines.

See Part 1 of this post, about data considerations, here.

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SGV Connect 37 – A People’s Map of East San Gabriel Valley

Have you ever seen a general plan process include collecting community stories? That’s what A People’s Map of East San Gabriel Valley is doing, and in this week’s SGV Connect we talked with the creative team behind this ongoing project.

A People’s Map project a part of LA County’s Department of Regional Planning effort to update the County General Plan. Because the region is so large they’re breaking up the process into parts by doing Area Plans to better focus on and identify an areas specific needs and character.

The first area plan is being done in East San Gabriel Valley, which is loosely defined as the areas east of the 605, North of Orange County, West of San Bernardino County and south of the Antelope Valley. It includes 21 unincorporated places like Rowland Heights, North Pomona and Walnut Islands.

Fonografia Collective, a documentary and journalism storytelling team of Ruxandra Guidi and Bear Guerra, have done similar place-based storytelling projects around LA (Going Grey in LA; South of Fletcher: Stories from the Bowtie).

While A People’s Map is more of a community engagement tool – the regional planning department is doing its own outreach and information gathering activities – the project is complimenting the work by giving the residents a space to be a part of defining what’s important in their community, said Guerra.

“By giving them the space to share that personal story. . . by giving people the place to talk about the things that they value, the things that really matter to them about the place that they call home or the place that they spend a lot of time, in a way that wouldn’t come out in a typical planning meeting,” Guerra said.

Fonografia collective will be collecting stories from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. March 16th at the Homestead Museum (15415 E. Don Julian Road, City of Industry, 91745).

#SGV Connect is supported by Foothill Transit, offering car-free travel throughout the San Gabriel Valley with connections to the new Gold Line Stations across the Foothills and Commuter Express lines traveling into the heart of downtown L.A. To plan your trip, visit Foothill Transit. “Foothill Transit. Going Good Places.”

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Talking Headways Podcast: The Annual Yonah Freemark Prediction Show

This week, we’re joined by perennial favorite Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic. We rate his predictions from last year and give predictions for next year, some of which are already in peril! He chats about his zoning paper that has gotten a lot of attention from housing advocates, high speed rail and California’s current dilemma, and Amazon’s New York departure.
It’s a hot hot hot show.

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How Driving Is Encouraged and Subsidized — By Law

Driving is so hard-wired into American culture, life and institutions, that it’s hard to account for all the ways it is subsidized, preferenced or otherwise favored. But Greg Shill, a law professor at University of Iowa, attempted it anyway.

In a new paper, he lists all the ways the legal system puts its thumb on the scale for drivers to the detriment of everyone else: transit users, cyclists and pedestrians.

“Rules from virtually every field of law that codify subsidies for driving, including dangerous driving, should be repealed,” Shill writes. “These laws are not the root cause of automobile supremacy, but they armor it in law and give it agency of its own.”

How many areas of law? Let Shill count the ways:

#1. Traffic Laws Soft-Peddle Very Dangerous Behavior

Speeding kills 10,000 Americans annually. But while it’s technically illegal, the offense enforced arbitrarily and half-heartedly.

For example, in practice, speeding rules are not enforced unless the violation is in excess of 10 mph over the limit. This is an example of what’s called in legal terms “an insincere rule,” he says, a rule that practically mandates something other than what it states. That approach to speeding “fosters a creeping normalization” of what is in fact a very dangerous activity, he writes.

In addition, other dangerous behavior, like failing to yield to pedestrians is almost never enforced. Shill cites a Wisconsin study showing drivers only yielded to pedestrians 16 percent of the time, indicating that if cops wanted to, they could spend their time doing nothing else but writing failure-to-yield tickets.

#2. Land Use Laws Favor Sprawl

Zoning laws such as single-family only land uses and minimum lot sizes have served to spread the distance between where people live and where they want to go, forcing them into lifestyles that are almost totally dependent on driving. In addition, zoning laws frequently restrict housing density — a more walkable form of land use — and limit mixed-use buildings, which blend retail and residential.

As a result walkable housing and retail are effectively outlawed in much of America.

#3. Legal Parking Requirements Subsidize Driving

“Over the past 100 years,” Shill writes, “it has been the undeclared first principle of U.S. transportation policy that individuals should be able to travel door-to-door in private vehicles at no cost, beyond the expenses of operating one’s own car. ”

Minimum parking requirements are a key part of that. A ubiquitous part of zoning law, they require a fixed number of parking spaces near every building type. Usually, these parking spaces are provided for free to users, but that doesn’t mean they don’t cost money. Some studies have estimated they add as much as $225 to an apartment’s rent.

These rules have led to massive amounts of land being consumed by parking. For example, by some estimates 14 percent of LA County’s land area is consumed by parking.

In addition, to parking requirements, many cities provide free on-street parking, or undercharge for it. Even ultra-liberal, transit friendly Cambridge, Massachusetts “sells car storage for $2.08 a month” through its residential permitting program, Shill writes.

#4. Emissions Laws Exempt ‘Light Trucks’

Environmental regulations also serve to subsidize driving in a variety of perverse ways. Shill singles out the exemption from fuel economy standards for “light trucks” i.e. SUVs. This encouraged car makers to sell pickup trucks and SUVs, which now make up about 65 percent of new car sales. As a result, they have wiped out all the efficiency gains made by cars over the last few decades.

In addition, SUVs in particular tend to be deadly for pedestrians. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates they are two to three times more likely to kill a pedestrian in a collision than a sedan.

#5. Emissions Laws Ignore the Environmental Costs of Roadbuilding

The EPA regulates vehicle emissions — although, as we’ve covered, not every effectively. At the same time, the EPA ignores the high environmental cost of building the roads themselves. The U.S. added an average of 31,000 highway lane miles per year over the last decade, Shill reports adding about 109 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the air annually just from the construction. The social cost of that, using standard formulas, is about $4 billion, he says. EPA doesn’t do anything about it.

#6. Vehicle Safety Regulations Ignore Pedestrians

The U.S. imposes all kinds of safety regulations on vehicle manufacturers such as airbags, seatbelts and crumple zones. But, so far, these regulations have completely ignored vulnerable road users: pedestrians and cyclists.

Safety groups like the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Shill said, “have for decades only considered the crashworthiness of vehicles for occupants of the vehicle being rated, again ignoring potential impacts on pedestrians and other vehicles.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations urges national governments to use regulations to protect pedestrians, who make up 16 percent of total U.S. traffic deaths — a portion that is growing as cars become safer and safer for their occupants and more dangerous for everyone else. Forty-four nations have adopted the guidelines. Late in the Obama Administration, U.S. safety regulators moved to begin considering impacts to pedestrians, but the effort has not been continued by the Trump administration.

#7. Vehicle Safety Regulations Allow Unsafe Aftermarket Vehicle Modifications

Vehicle regulations also inexplicably ignore a whole range of aftermarket modifications that can worsen safety, especially for vulnerable users.

Most notably, perhaps, they allow drivers — especially drivers of pickups and SUVs — to affix “bull bars,” metal reinforcement rods, to the front ends of their vehicles. These have shown to be dangerous to both drivers and pedestrians. They are especially dangerous to children. Child pedestrians hit by a car with bull bars at 10 to 15 times more likely to be killed, one study found.

They are banned in the U.K. and in some other countries, but in the U.S. they are basically unregulated. In fact, many police departments use taxpayer dollars to purchase them for patrol vehicles.

#8. Insurance Law Limits Payouts to Pedestrians

Insurance law also fails pedestrians in a couple of ways.

For one thing, premiums are fixed, regardless of how many miles a driver drives — a perverse form of pricing that incentivizes more driving, which leads to more crashes. Studies have estimated that a pay-as-you-go auto insurance rate would reduce driving 6 to 10 percent.

In addition, states’ insurance laws fail pedestrians by requiring only relatively low bodily injury coverage. Shill writes:

The modal minimum amount of bodily injury coverage required by states is $25,000. The steepest requirement, $50,000, only applies in two of the nation’s least populated states, Alaska and Maine. The lowest is zero, which applies in Florida and New Hampshire.

In three of the nation’s five most populous states—California, Florida, and Pennsylvania, with nearly 75 million residents among them — the mandatory level of insurance for bodily injury is unusually low, between zero and $15,000.

“Most states,” Shill continues. “formally prioritize third parties — pedestrians, motorists, and property owners who are harmed by the insured’s actions. In no state is the scheme designed with anything resembling a goal of making vulnerable road users whole after being run over by a car.”

#9. Tax Law Subsidizes Sprawl

U.S. tax law also upholds the supremacy of driving, mostly through the mortgage interest deduction, says Shill. This tax benefit privileges homeownership over renting, helping fuel sprawl and car dependence.

#10. Tort Law Protects Dangerous Drivers

Tort law — which allows injured parties to sue for relief — also prevents injured pedestrians and cyclists from winning full restitution in a couple of ways, Shill writes.

“Courts restrict strict liability to activities that are both ultrahazardous and uncommon,” he writes.

But, of course, many driving behaviors are ultra-hazardous but also extremely common.

“A superior legal approach to our present one would rely on the dangerousness requirement alone,” he writes.

#11. Contract Law Freezes Out Pedestrians

Pedestrians, when they are injured in a collision that might be due to a vehicle defect, don’t have standing because they do not have “privity,” meaning they didn’t enter into a contract with the car maker, like the buyer did, Shill explains.

“Thus, under a strict reading of this rule, an innocent bystander would be unable to sue an automobile manufacturer in contract,” Shill writes. “The lack of privity defense has been criticized for removing potential relief for innocent bystanders, who do not have any way of preventing or avoiding the risks caused by unsafe products.”

#12. Criminal Law Rarely Punishes Dangerous Drivers

People who kill or injury pedestrians with vehicles are almost never charged criminally and convicted even more rarely, Shill writes.

A 2015 study [PDF] by the New York-based advocacy group Transportation Alternatives found that 99 percent of drivers involved in hit-and-run crashes were not charged by New York City’s five district attorneys.

The charge of vehicular homicide can help some pedestrians get justice. But juries are hesitant to convict of even lesser charges like involuntary manslaughter, Shill says.


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