With the Midterm Elections in the Rearview Mirror and a Persistently Challenging Economic Environment, What Does the Post-2010 Political Climate Mean for Transportation Improvement Efforts Like the Interstate 5 Gateway Improvement Project?
From Spring 2011
By Tim Whyte
Kids, cover your eyes. We’re looking at The Big Picture.
With the midterm elections of 2010 complete and legislators jockeying for position in Sacramento and Washington amid an economic climate that continues to pose challenges, what is the outlook for transportation?
In short: The big picture is fuzzy.
“From an economic development and construction point of view, it’s going to continue to be very difficult,” legislative advocate Hunt Braly told the Santa Clarita Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Transportation Committee in a recent special presentation on the transportation funding outlook. He was joined by political and transportation consultants Scott Wilk and Arthur Sohikian.
Braly said California’s political landscape over the next couple of years doesn’t make it look any easier for major infrastructure projects to be brought to fruition, considering the state’s budget woes and the Legislature’s increasingly limited flexibility in terms of raising taxes and fees without a two-thirds majority vote.
He said continuing political gridlock in Sacramento may hamper economic development efforts for now.
“It will be very difficult to get new projects approved, to build new roads,” Braly said, adding that the face of northern Los Angeles County’s representation will continue to change, as political reform and redistricting by an independent citizens commission are expected to alter the statewide political landscape.
“It’s hard to believe that whatever they come up with will not be more competitive, more competitive seats,” he said. “It could affect Santa Clarita because we are not enough of an area for one district.”
Another factor affecting change in California will be the new voter-approved open primary, in which the top two vote-getters will advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. The goal of the new system is to produce a Legislature that is less likely to be hamstrung by partisan gridlock, and is more flexible and responsive.
The wild card in the open primary, Braly said, will be the approximately 20 percent of California voters who have declined to state a party affiliation. “What are they going to do?”
Scott Wilk told the Chamber Transportation Committee the Washington outlook is of course challenging, but maybe not as much as you might think.
“I’m actually quite optimistic that we’re going to be able to function,” Wilk said of the new climate in Congress, where the Republicans established a new majority in the November election while the Democrats maintained a 51-47 edge in the House.
Despite widespread concern about the congressional ban on earmarks, Wilk said he doesn’t think earmarks will be gone permanently. “They are going to be renamed,” he said.
With the facelift Congress received in November, will we see gridlock or compromise?
Compromise will happen, Wilk said, but added he expects Congress to “punt” on many major issues until after the 2012 presidential election.
Arthur Sohikian agreed compromise is on the horizon in the newly blended Congress, but added, “How all that trickles down to transportation is really hard to see right now.
He said it’s vital for local leaders to take every available opportunity to remind their elected representatives that transportation is important, especially in a political environment where everyone is expecting their favorite programs or projects to endure some kind of spending reduction.
“You will have to expect some federal cuts this year,” Sohikian said. “Minimally, we know we’re going to get some kind of haircut.”
But, he said, it’s cyclical. “I’ve been around transportation funding now for 20 years. It goes in cycles with the economy.”
One of the non-cyclical challenges, he said, is the fact that the federal gas tax is a flat amount per gallon, rather than a percentage.
“There’s just no ability to want to raise taxes and the highway trust fund is losing money as we speak,” Sohikian said, adding that modern cars’ increased fuel efficiency is actually translating into fewer dollars for highway improvement.
“We’re buying less gas, so we’re paying less tax,” he said. “Eighteen cents is the federal tax. That hasn’t changed since the early ’90s. I can’t imagine that anybody is going to bring it up in the next several years and say, ‘We need to increase the gas tax.’”
That’s the bad news for transportation funding. The good news? Infrastructure improvement is a popular notion among leaders of both parties — and where there’s a will…
“The good news for transportation is that typically pouring concrete is a bipartisan issue,” Sohikian said. “They still want to spend that dollar. The question is who gets to spend more of it.”
So where does Interstate 5 fit in the broader context of the post-2010 political climate?
“Like everyone else, we are carefully watching what’s happening in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.,” said Victor Lindenheim, executive director of the Golden State Gateway Coalition.
Fortunately, environmental clearance has been secured and funding sources have been identified for the first phase of the Interstate 5 Capacity Enhancement Project/Gateway Improvement Project.
“Construction of the new truck lanes could begin as soon as next year,” Lindenheim said.
But, he added, the Coalition remains watchful of the “Big Picture.”
“Of course our top priority is the I-5 enhancement project, and we’ll be working to get everything in order for the next phases — including high occupancy vehicle lanes — that are scheduled to be built after the first truck lane phase,” Lindenheim said.
“But we are also mindful of the importance of not just this project but also all efforts to improve mobility and facilitate economic development through transportation improvements,” he said. “What happens with our elected leaders in Sacramento and Washington over the next couple of years can have a profound impact on the future of transportation — locally, regionally and nationally.”