California spends roughly $28 billion on transportation infrastructure every year, but that money could be spent far more effectively and in ways that are better aligned with the state’s environmental goals, according to a report by the Climate Change and Business Initiative at the UCLA and UC Berkeley law schools.

“California spends its transportation dollars through multiple agencies and levels of government that are too often at cross purposes with each other,” said Ethan Elkind, lead author of the report and associate director of the Climate Change and Business Initiative. “In particular, we continue to fund new expansion projects when our existing roads need repair and safe and convenient access for transit riders, pedestrians and bicyclists.”

According to the report, California could better coordinate transportation spending to support goals such as improved maintenance of existing roads and improved public access to walking, biking and transit infrastructure. These modes of travel can provide convenient and affordable access to jobs and services, support public health goals and meet growing market demand for communities that provide such mobility — all while decreasing air pollution.

“California should develop standards for approving new transportation projects and funding that incorporate our public health and environmental laws,” said Cara Horowitz, Andrew Sabin Family Foundation Co-Executive Director of UCLA Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “We should provide a range of transportation options to give people more affordable and convenient choices for getting where they need to go.”

Part of the challenge in making more coordinated transportation spending decisions, according to the report, is the range of agencies and levels of government involved. The state should take a lead role in developing a common vision and set of goals for the agencies involved and encourage local decision-makers to align their transportation projects with those goals.

“Too often the state sends mixed messages about where transportation dollars should go,” Elkind said. “We should have a coordinated vision across all state agencies, with tools to ensure that only the most cost-effective, pollution-minimizing projects get approved.”

The report also makes several recommendations for implementing the goals. Among them:

  • State and local leaders should develop strict performance measures for all transportation projects that incorporate state environmental and energy goals and then fund only projects that achieve them.
  • The state should explore options for increasing revenue for transportation projects that meet the goals, such as by reducing the voter approval threshold for local transportation funding measures from the current two-thirds to 55 percent, and by replacing the gas tax with a tax based on the number of miles drivers travel. 
  • California should encourage congestion pricing on busy highways to manage demand and generate revenue that could be reinvested in more affordable and convenient transportation options in those corridors.

The report is the 15th in a series of policy papers by the Climate Change and Business Research Initiative, a partnership between UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and UC Berkeley School of Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. Funded by Bank of America, the series focuses on how climate change will create opportunities for specific sectors of the business community and how policymakers can facilitate those opportunities.