California Localities Anticipate How to Meet Infrastructure, Transportation Demands

From talking with policymakers in Washington, D.C., to gathering the support of constituents, local leaders talk about funding programs and the anticipated population boom facing the Union’s most populated state.

by / December 9, 2015
Contra Costa Transportation Authority Executive Director Randall Iwasaki Eyragon Eidam/Government Technology

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The president's recent signing of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) was the impetus for a conversation among local leaders in California about transportation and infrastructure funding in the state — a state that expects to see its population increase to more than 50 million people within the next 35 years.

Though the FAST Act will mean more money rolling into state and local transportation coffers, it won't be enough to repair all of the nation’s aging infrastructure. And this aging — and in some cases failing — infrastructure coupled with the expected population boom means that transportation officials and city leaders said agencies will have to plan better to ensure the state keeps pace with those who rely on it to get from one place to another.

In a session on infrastructure financing and planning at the Governing California Leadership Forum held Dec. 8, Randall Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, and Sacramento Mayor Pro Tem Angelique Ashby discussed this projected growth in the state and how to meet infrastructure demands.

Iwasaki, who formerly headed the California Department of Transportation, said the “old days” of a near 50/50 funding split between the federal government and the state is a thing of the past. In transportation funding today, Iwasaki said the state and local agencies are shouldering more of the burden. 

According to the director, around 12 percent of funding comes from the federal government, 23 percent comes from state government, and around 65 percent comes from local sources, like sales tax, tolls and developer fees.

“For the first time in a long time we have a long-term transportation bill, and what that means, at least for people in my position, is that we have a long-term funding source so we can do better planning, you can actually rely on future federal funding,” he said. “The feds now are trying to get back into the game.”

As the money from federal sources may be harder to come by than in decades past, Iwasaki said his trips to Washington, D.C., also focus on the need for regulation reform.

“If the federal government only has 12 percent [of funding] but has 80 percent of the rules, either raise the amount of revenue or lower the amount of rules," he said, "because these rules cost us money and time to deliver vital transportation improvement programs.”

Ashby has had her own experiences chasing federal funding and support after homebuilding in her district was halted following Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent fears surrounding the nation’s levy systems. She said her efforts to garner support from Washington didn’t circle around players inside the state, but those outside the state.

“You had to go find people in the rest of the country willing to vote for something for Sacramento, California,” she said.

Ultimately when it comes to federal policy, “You have to be patient,” Iwasaki said. “It takes patience to continue to articulate regulation reform. What is it that you want and how is it going to be affecting the whole transportation system for not just California, but all of the United States.”

Congress, he said, faces the challenge of balancing the needs of large and small states. Ashby agreed, saying that California stands above many other states in the fact that state interest groups are often prepared to advocate for themselves.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the head of transportation or a city manager or a lobbyist or an elected official, what we do really well is bring resources to the table,” she said. “I made the argument that we were doing more to help ourselves than other projects were. California is very good at bringing resources to the table, whether that is resources in expertise or funding. And I think that would be a really good tip for anyone who is fighting D.C., because oftentimes you’re fighting cities or counties that don’t bring resources to the table, and it is a way to launch yourself ahead of the others.”

The local leaders also touched on the need to structure long-term plans in a way that allows for technological expansion and integration. In Contra Costa, Iwasaki said decision-makers are considering a 2016 ballot measure that would equate to $3 billion over the next 25 to 30 years. 

“My board now is saying, ‘We want it transformational. We want to have the next measure not do the same things that they have done before,’” he said. “That’s music to my ears. I want them to think about the future, I want them to take risks, I want them to see a bright future, and make sure that we go out and make the right investments.”

The county is looking at how technologies like autonomous vehicles and vehicle-to-vehicle communication will shift how people travel in Contra Costa.

Meanwhile in Sacramento, the ongoing construction of a new sports complex in the heart of the downtown area has driven conversation about the future of public parking in the city. Ashby said the use of a mobile parking applications and proposed urban circulator, or streetcar, will be useful tools in helping visitors and residents navigate the city in the coming years.

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.