Transportation bond a model of compromise, legislators say

For a gargantuan spending package put together under time constraints,
California’s $19.93 billion transportation bond is a model of political
compromise. The Legislature is deeply partisan but lawmakers passed the
bond, Proposition 1B on the November ballot, with room to spare over the
necessary two-thirds majority.

While most of the final deal was put together in talks between the four
legislative leaders–without immediate input from Gov. Schwarzenegger–it was
Schwarzenegger’s January 5 state of the state address that helped focus the
Legislature on transportation and other infrastructure needs.

But the final package looked considerably different that the plan put
forward by the governor in January–both in size and scope. Perhaps the most
significant change is a fundamentally different approach in the way that
transportation projects will receive their funding.

The governor’s original bond proposal sought to centralize the process of
choosing projects under the California Department of Transportation. It even
included a list of specific projects to be funded by the bond, which
infringed on the Legislature’s right to make funding decisions and provided
bond opponents with a specific target.

While interest groups and legislators often complain about the formulas used
to distribute transportation money–particularly those laid out under the
State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP)–it turned out they like
these better than the alternative, that is, having the money directed by the
governor’s office. In the last decade, the state has moved from a top-down
to a bottom-up approach, Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said. While
legislators lost some ability to focus on transportation as a “system,” he
said, there has been a lot less money spent on projects not wanted or needed
by local areas.

Several people also pointed to a January report from the Legislative
Analysts Office. It criticizes the federal transportation act Congress
passed last August. While it will distribute $23.4 billion in transportation
funds to California through 2009, the report said the federal government
largely mandates where the money will go. There was a widespread feeling
that this federal money is not going where it’s needed, said some close to
the bond process, which contributed to legislators wanting to maintain more
local control over state money.

But when it came to bringing in Republican votes, said Lowenthal, the best
spent money might be a mere $250 million for grade separation. Much of this
money will be spent on small bridges to keep people from being delayed by
trains, especially in rural areas. This will become a growing issue, as
freight-rail traffic is likely to increase in coming years.

“The Inland Republicans really liked that,” said Lowenthal chair of the
Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. “You know how angry people can
get when they’re stuck behind a train.”

Beyond just the funding mechanism, legislators in both parties found
significant parts of the proposal they didn’t like. Democrats thought there
was far too little money for transit. Inland Republicans wanted assurances
that the bond would fix the troubled Highway 99 corridor.

Within a couple days of Schwarzenegger’s speech, Treasurer Phil Angelides
dismissed it as “a 1950s package” with too much emphasis on roads and
highways. While such language was to be expected from the man who ultimately
won the Democratic nomination for governor, he was soon joined by a chorus
of other Democrats.

“We could not do more of the same,” Lowenthal said. “It was the Democrats
who wanted to push more for transit.”

Lowenthal said L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa “was on the phone with us all
the time” pushing for more transit and working with fellow Angelino,
Assembly Speaker Fabian N

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