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Can We Solve California's Active Transportation Enigma?

It’s that time of year again. The California Transportation Commission (CTC) is voting on the new program of projects for its Active Transportation Program (ATP) which means two things. First, the projects identified in this list have a funding allocation reserved for them at the planned time and will presumably get built as proposed. Second, a huge list of equally-worthy projects will have to find funding elsewhere, wait two years to hopefully secure funding in the next program of projects, or never get built at all.

Since the Program’s inception in 2013, it has been clear that the demand for active transportation funding far outstrips the monies available at the state level. Originally funded at about $123 million a year by combining various state and federal programs, the ATP received a big boost in 2017 from the Road Repair and Accountability Act (SB 1) which dedicated an additional $100 million per year to the Program. Still, each cycle the CTC receives significantly more applications for funding than it is able to accommodate. The staff recommendation for this year’s Program dedicates roughly $286 million to 50 projects across the state (in the statewide and small urban/rural portions of the program); however, the Commission received 454 project nominations seeking approximately $2.3 billion in ATP funds for this cycle.

Unfortunately, no matter what the CTC does, it can’t fund every proposed project, which means it has to pick winners and leave a lot of projects out. While it is disappointing to not receive funding, it is important to recognize that not making the cut does not mean your project is not worthwhile. Understanding how difficult not being chosen can be, CTC staff go through an intensive effort each cycle to do their best to ensure the process is fair and transparent. Over this past two-year cycle, staff conducted 21 workshops across the state to develop the program guidelines and refine the applications and scoring rubrics. Then once the submissions were received, the Commission established 50 two-person teams of volunteer evaluators from across the state to evaluate the project submittals based on those guidelines and rubrics. CTC staff do not score the projects - they leave it up to the evaluators to determine the scores. Once that is done, staff select the highest-scoring projects to include in the Program through the process determined in the guidelines.

The end result always seems disappointing, more because so many great projects fail to make the cut than because of any fault in the process. However, it is hard to conceive of a way to make the process fairer and more transparent. What needs to happen, if California really believes in the value of these ATP projects, is more funding needs to be dedicated to the program. Unfortunately, without action by the Legislature either through a policy bill or budget trailer bill, there is little else the CTC can do to accommodate the abundant need. There are a number of alternative funding options available, however, and in an attempt to be helpful Caltrans and the CTC have put together a comprehensive list here. But, like in many policy debates, there never seems to be enough to do everything we want.

So on March 24th the Commission will adopt the 2021 ATP, a number of project sponsors will be happy to secure funding, while a whole lot of sponsors will be disappointed. In the end, though, everyone involved in the process will know that if they didn’t get funded it isn’t because of the CTC or that their project isn’t worthy; they are simply a victim of incredible demand and limited supply.

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