Assembly Transportation Chair Laura Friedman and CTC's Hilary Norton on Challenges of Decarbonizing Transportation in California

Hilary Norton

In this VX News interview, California Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Laura Friedman, and California Transportation Commissioner Hilary Norton, elaborate on the state budget's reflection of California's transportation funding priorities. Here, the two leaders, both charged with wisely deploying the state's transportation infrastructure funding, highlight  the opportunities—whether through policy or budget decisions—to incentivize mode shift, active transportation choices, and zero-emissions mobility. 

Hilary, when VX News last spoke with you noted a sea change in transportation policy leadership in California, which includes Laura Friedman being Chair of the Transportation Committee. Highlight the impacts that leadership change has had on the state's transportation priorities.

Hilary Norton: It's now April of 2023, and there are only three people, myself included, that were on the CTC when I started in 2019. That's 3 out of 11. That's a sea change right there. There's also been a sea change in leadership at CalSTA, Caltrans and CTC in the past year, reflecting a new set of goals while working with what we told voters we would do when voting for SB1 and our local sales tax measures. We are all very focused on how we can achieve mobility and economic growth while also achieving sustainability. We’re also focusing on a variety of modes in order to get around.

How have growing federal and state resources impacted where the California Transportation Commission is allocating funding?

Hilary Norton: It's impacted where we allocate funding because part of our goals at CTC are to expand active transportation and to accelerate zero-emission mobility.

We asked the governor to include $1 billion in active transportation in his budget, and he did. It is the largest-in-the-nation commitment to walking and biking. Every single program that funds highways also has to include a complete streets element to address the needs of all modes that may use the highway or cross the highway. That means that we have to make sure that we're looking at a lot of different opportunities for a variety of funding beyond cars.

We're also completely reexamining and reimagining how we use our freight networks and how those freight networks should be powered. That’s the movement to zero emission freight and on-dock rail.  

We are looking at new ways of pricing roadways as alternatives to the gas tax and to implementing congestion pricing such as ExpressLanes help reduce traffic and incentivize additional mode shift toward buses and carpooling.

I'm really excited about the direction that Governor Newsom has set us on and the legislature is continuing through his Climate Action Plan for Transportation and Infrastructure, (CAPTI).

Assemblymember Friedman, as the Chair of Assembly Transportation, how, if at all, have the legislature’s investment decisions in transportation changed under your watch?

Laura Friedman: I was very excited to see CAPTI and to see those priority changes spelled out so clearly. I can tell that the CTC has embraced that document; however, I feel that the Metropolitan Planning Organizations are still about two decades behind where I think the Governor and the CTC and, certainly, my priorities are.

One of the things that I've worked on quite a bit since I've become Transportation Chair is trying to connect our transportation policies with our land use and environmental policies. A lot of times they seem a bit disconnected. Really, they're all interconnected, along with housing policy and equity. Mobility is very fundamental to people's ability to live well, yet we sometimes treat people who can't drive or don't want to drive or can't afford to drive as an afterthought.

CAPTI is a really great document that I've been working on trying to codify through our funding formulas. I've not been very successful, quite honestly. Last year, we began the conversation with a couple of pieces of legislation. One of them was held in the Senate, and the other one was vetoed by the governor.

This year, we've reintroduced the same idea of being able to make SB 375 part of the way that we do plan for transportation. We want to make sure that funding goes to projects that hit those other goals of reducing emissions, helping with mobility for all individuals, and building infill housing; projects that embody what CAPTI is trying to do.

We've put together a bigger group of stakeholders this year, including SB 375 author Darrell Steinberg who was working hand in hand with me on both pieces of legislation. We've sat down with labor, MPOs, with the big city representatives, all kinds of community members, and the environmental justice community.

Recently, I wet to Riverside to do a transit tour with them. In San Diego, I went to a meeting with environmental justice communities about what they want to see in policies that do align very closely with CAPTI. That's what I've been trying to work on, and that's what I'm planning to work on as the bulk of what I do this year as well.

The Biden administration has initiated the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation to address the silos between these inextricable sectors.  How, whether it's through the budget, the State Commissions, or otherwise, are you addressing the nexus of transportation, land-use and environmental investments in California?

Laura Friedman: We are focusing one of the two bills I mentioned on that federal money and saying that if we were better aligned in terms of the projects that we have prioritized through our MPOs with the federal priorities, we’d have a better chance to compete for that money.

I'm not trying to blame the MPOs. I think that with our transportation planning, it takes so long to plan these projects that you end up with these legacy projects. Sometimes I think it's hard for these entities to say their priorities and needs have changed. We need to be more nimble about changing gears.

A lot of our money still goes to capacity-building projects on highways, road widenings, and that kind of thing. There's a place when that's appropriate, but we also need to make sure that projects that do reduce emissions and reduce single-occupancy car trips have a fair chance to compete for funding.

Often, they're on those lists, but they're way at the bottom of the list. Those are things like bus rapid transit and active transportation projects, which are woefully underfunded in the state, have the capacity to reduce a lot of car trips, and make people healthier. They're not being funded the way that highway widenings are being funded.

Hilary Norton: I couldn't agree with Assemblymember Friedman more.

One of the things that we need to look at is clean goods movement and other ways in which we are going to make it safer for communities who are in paths of goods movement. We're going to convert to different forms of zero-emission mobility, and we've got to be doing that with the federal government allowing us to not fit in existing funding boxes. We are unique because we're moving 40 percent of the imports of the entire country.

The point that Chair Friedman made was that we've got to stop thinking that the car is king. As people who are very focused on taking our land use current patterns and changing them, we are making sure that there could be better allocations of money for projects that can serve more people by connecting land use with efficient mobility like transit or mobility hubs.

For example, the DTLA 2040 Plan is where 30 percent of the entire city’s residential growth will be on 1 percent of the city's land. It is very well-served by transit. We want to continue to make sure that we're creating these land use opportunities that are near transit, so that we don't have to get in our car as a failsafe every time.

We can start by looking at the BRT that Chair Friedman and I supported in our own backyards: the Noho to Pasadena BRT. There are constantly people trying to poke holes in it and not move forward. We want to see these opportunities where new growth is going to be fed by clean buses and transit people are going to take because it connects previously underserved areas to each other. We want to encourage land use patterns to change, so that we can encourage people to spend less on owning a vehicle and parking it at least 90 percent of the time.

How are you able today to engage & coalesce the disparate populations of California in support of your priorities as you advocate for these mode shift investment strategies – given the attendant inconveniences which clearly accompany any transitions of existing mobility offerings?

Laura Friedman: I would say that there's a lot of people who already are extremely inconvenienced that we're not always seeing. People who are taking buses right now in Los Angeles are enduring really awful experiences because we don't have bus rapid transit and the buses are stuck in traffic. Those people have no other choice, and they deserve those investments as well. There are already people who are suffering with the current system, like our low-income workers, our service workers, and our seniors.

There are also a lot of students who are taking buses, and there's a lot of service workers in that group. Not only are they taking buses, a lot of them are riding bikes. Yet for a lot of people, they're invisible. Pointing out to people that a lot of our neighbors, people who are serving you in a restaurant, and people who are cleaning a room in a hotel are transit-dependent. Those people deserve a much better experience than we are giving them in Los Angeles.

Number two, if we're going to continue to grow as we must because of the housing crisis, we have two choices. We can build it out in San Bernardino and have those same people endure two-hour commutes, clogging our highways, or we can do the kind of infill that we need and know is more sustainable. We can't do that having all those people driving everywhere. We know that has just led to a city that's more and more congested and unlivable.

When we do things like the Orange Line, which is the bus rapid transit in the Valley, it has surpassed ridership numbers. It's extremely popular. You know, people want to take transit. There are issues with safety, convenience, and all kinds of issues that we can talk about, and I'm doing a bill about the future of transit and how to bring those riders back into the system. There's experimentation and pilot programs looking at what different ways are serving people better, but what we know doesn't work is every single person in our growing community having to drive everywhere all the time.

Hilary Norton: I make sure that as often as I can, if I'm not taking transit, I have a passenger with me in the car. If more people did that, we would change things precipitously. We have to realize that there are a lot of people who are actually trying to make their lives more nimble, and we need to be helping them with safe and abundant ways to ride transit more often.

We've both been advocates for looking at more ambassadors on transit, especially for women. For women taking transit, it’s also important that we have safe walking paths to and from transit stops.

I also would say that we should not make it take so long to ensure that good transit projects get implemented. For something like BRT, that has general support, it shouldn't take this long to put it in place. There are lots of us who are driving cars, not because we want to drive them, but because the transit we voted for and want to see happen isn't there yet.

Some of the other funding opportunites that CTC is investing in are congestion pricing, looking at express lanes, and other options to change travel behavior. We need to be celebrating more often when people are actually moving to different modes and feeling like they've learned something.

Think about how many people are taking the shuttles to the Hollywood Bowl, which may seem like such a small change, but when I talk to people about the last time they took a bus, they often say they took a bus to the Hollywood Bowl and that it was great  and that they would never do back to driving and parking. If we made it easier for buses of all sorts to move around the region, we could be taking the bus to lots of other places, just like the Hollywood Bowl.

More people also need to understand that we're an aging region, so we need to provide better and safer transit for seniors. There are also lots of students and young people who don't even have their drivers licenses and don't really want them. We need to be supporting them with safe rides by bike, bus and rail.

In addition to making major investments in transportation infrastructure, what can the state do to address the short-term needs for those struggling to make this transition safely and conveniently?

Laura Friedman: I think Commissioner Norton is absolutely right about if you're going to get people there, you have to give them a much better experience than we've been giving them in Los Angeles. We need to make sure that we fund transit right now because they've had such a huge financial decline because of COVID. That just leads to reduced service and dirtier trains. The immediate need is to give them the support that they need to get their system shored up. That, right now, is more important than expansion when it comes to rail.

I do agree with Commissioner Norton on getting the timeline faster for things that shouldn't take so long, like getting approvals for things like bus rapid transit. That should be something that can be done very quickly. It's not like putting a track down where you're making this huge investment that you're not going to take out if it doesn’t work. It shouldn't take five or ten years to do a CEQA review on a bus line.

I would also say to start on the projects that really get you the biggest bang for your buck. Sepulveda Pass is long past time of starting. That's a system that people would take. Getting the circulator running around Griffith Park in a more reliable way is a system people would take. It’s about bringing the infrastructure to where the demand is first.

Hillary Norton: To follow up on one thing that Chair Friedman was saying, the cost of transit operations has got to stop being on life support all the time. We need to have a dedicated source of revenue for timely and expanded operations of transit, especially buses and Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAVs) -- the things that people use all the time.

That's one reason that the CTC is looking at a complete overhaul of our pricing system and the road user charge. We’re also looking at expanding more locations for express lanes because we really do need to have dedicated sources of dollars for transit operations. So far, a lot of our state and federal money is all capital expenditures rather than operations funding.

As we are starting to look at congestion pricing and other potential express lanes, like ones along the Sepulveda Pass or the 105 freeway, those are going to be important for expanding potential new bus routes and new ways of moving people to and from very active job centers and travel and tourism destinations. We’ve got to make sure that we can afford the system we're building and invest in it over and over because those systems take money to operate.

We're very lucky that we had two infusions from the federal CARES Act, and the recent emergency allocation from the federal government in which the state of California is getting $500 million for transit operations. Each agency needs to come to terms with the fact that the operational budget has to have resources that are not one-time. They need to be repetitive and dedicated in order for us to not shortchange the people whose lives depend on transit.

Laura Friedman: I wonder if we haven't missed a huge opportunity in California by not doing the kind of value capture around our transit systems and our stations the way that they do in many other countries. Private investment can fund so much of the operations of those systems. In other countries, sometimes their entire capital project or the program is funded by the development that's going to happen around their train systems. It's not just things like affordable housing; it's revenue-generating projects like retail, restaurants, and stadiums that then are expected to put money into the system.

Not only does that have the benefit of funding your system, but it also brings people into your system. It brings people right to where they want to go. It creates an environment where there's people all around to make people feel safe. We just don't do that here in any real scale, and I think it was a huge missed opportunity.

Hillary Norton: I think there is a sense of trying to have that value capture with the Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs) that can pay for transit stations and EV charging. There has been a discussion around creating an EIFD for the West Santa Ana Branch stations and other locations that could also fund transit. In addition, the Inglewood Transit Connector has a plan where they're going to be reinvesting some of the proceeds from development along the ITC through a value capture process.

The key is to look at a total ecosystem, like we had with CRA, where you can build your project first and then the tax increment comes later. There is a question, especially in these difficult development times, about upfront value capture because I think that's been very difficult to estimate and make sure it isn't a barrier to the development we need in the first place.

There are ways in which we can have some really great value capture for long periods of time. I'm sad that redevelopment went away because even though there were some places where it wasn't working, there are many places that are, frankly, better off because redevelopment helped create the opportunity for the investments to thrive -- places where 30 percent of that money goes to affordable housing and money goes to things like transit operations or microloans to indigenous businesses.

Finally,  recent headlines note that “Denver’s wildly successful (E-Bike) incentive program isn’t just helping residents buy greener rides — it’s building an army of bike lane advocates.” Is there anything like that in play in Southern California? Is Denver’s success replicable in California?

Hilary Norton: The San Gabriel Valley is doing a great e-bike lending program. It’s one of the biggest in the country.

I'm again proud to say that with Chair Friedman's help, $1 billion went into active transportation. That’s above and beyond what our ATP funds were last year. I will say the fact that the CTC and Caltrans and the US Department of Transportation invested that much money in making it possible for better infrastructure to happen for e-bikes and others is important.

It was still $1 billion dollars less than what CTC had hoped for. We wanted $500 million a year just for long distance bike corridors, like the LA River. If you can now go on an e-bike for 10 to 15 to 25 miles pretty easily, that's a commute load that needs investing in far beyond what we're investing in now.

We also need wider bike lanes, because a bike that's going at 20 miles an hour is very different than a cyclist or a pedestrian going at “human” speed. We have to be very careful about how those mobility options are used on sidewalks so we don't add an unsafe mode to sidewalks where you have people traveling in wheelchairs or with strollers or with walkers. It's most important to keep every person who's trying to travel in every mode as safe as possible.

Laura Friedman: I would say e-bikes are a game changer. Now, under California's programs, you can use your incentive from the cash-for-clunkers program for an e-bike instead of a car. 

I would love to see more of our state money go towards supporting these kinds of much more sustainable and humane and equitable measures. That's what I’ll continue working on.


“We asked the governor to include $1 billion in active transportation in his budget, and he did. It is the largest-in-the-nation commitment to walking and biking…That means that we have to make sure that we're looking at a lot of different opportunities for a variety of funding beyond cars.”—Hilary Norton