In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed cuts to various transportation programs to help address a looming budget deficit. With COVID relief funds expiring, many agencies are already facing a fiscal cliff, and advocates worry that additional cuts could derail any chances of meeting the state’s climate goals.

Guest Commentary written by

David Weiskopf

David Weiskopf

David Weiskopf is the senior policy advisor for climate and environmental issues at Next Gen Policy.

After a record surplus enabled California to commit an unprecedented $54 billion to address the climate crisis in last year’s budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed to scale back that commitment by roughly $6 billion due to a budget shortfall.

A closer look at the proposed budget cuts reveal that transportation, and specifically public transit and active transportation, suffer the most challenging reductions. These proposed cuts take the state’s climate goals on a U-turn California cannot afford. 

The transportation sector accounts for about half of the state’s greenhouse gas pollution. If the state has any hope of meeting its 2030 targets or getting on track to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045, California will need to rapidly and radically transform how we get around.

Part of that transformation is well underway. Thanks in no small part to state regulations and investments, nearly 20% of California car sales last year were zero-emission vehicles. This shows that we are nearing or past an industry tipping point that will make the state’s goal of 100% ZEV sales by 2035 an inevitability.

But ZEVs alone will not solve transportation’s climate problem. In the 2022 update to the so-called scoping plan, the California Air Resources Board emphasized that the state won’t be able to reach carbon neutrality by 2045 without cutting annual emissions almost in half by the end of the decade. Baked into that 49% reduction is CARB’s goal to reduce car dependence – measured in vehicle miles traveled – to 25% below 2019 levels by 2030.

Yet Californians are driving more than ever, and we have no plans to change that. Even as the state makes progress on vehicle electrification, a lack of transportation alternatives threatens to cancel out those gains.

Currently, public transportation agencies in California are facing a fiscal cliff. Federal COVID relief funds for transit operations are expiring soon, which could soon result in dramatic service cuts. Experts warn that such measures could trigger a death spiral for public transportation in California. 

Neither last year’s budget nor this year’s proposal provide any meaningful support for transit operations. In a January letter to the budget committees, San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener and several of his legislative colleagues pointed out what was at risk: “…long-term, possibly irreversible, devastating impacts on California’s transportation system and climate goals.”

Meanwhile, funds for relatively inexpensive cost-saving initiatives like the Active Transportation Program are being proposed for cuts despite the program being oversubscribed, having no shortage of shovel-ready projects.

So what should California’s policymakers do? Well, the Legislature and the Newsom administration should take this year’s budget shortfall as an opportunity to fine-tune its clean transportation priorities.

The governor’s proposal provides numerous alternatives for backfilling its proposed cuts to the ZEV package, offering to reserve billions in future cap-and-trade funds and introducing the idea of a climate bond to make up the funding gap.

This same expansive thinking should be applied to finding alternative funding streams for public and active transportation. These kinds of investments can have impacts beyond reduced emissions – they improve air quality, reduce traffic fatalities and help revitalize local economies. If the state truly faces the threat of a recession and more rising gas prices, Californians will need low-cost alternatives to driving for getting around.

Meeting California’s climate goals means taking an all-of-government approach to decarbonization.  California can’t just fund climate programs when it has a surplus. At this moment in time, with public transportation agencies facing service cuts and state revenue streams imposing difficult decisions, investing in active and public transportation is fiscally responsible climate policy.

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