Dan Walters: Californians will remain dependent on their cars

dwalters@sacbee.comMarch 17, 2013 

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments is so politically correct it squeaks – fully embracing the anti-greenhouse gas, pro-transit, "sustainable" development policies adopted by the state in recent years with a "blueprint" said to be a model for other California regions.

Yet, when one drills into the details of the regional development plan, an interesting trend emerges: Even if its theory becomes reality, there would be only a relatively tiny shift from the private automobile as the major means of regional transportation.

Vehicle-miles of travel in the region, estimated now at about 60 million a year, would rise to 74 million by 2035 – flat on a per-capita basis, but a nearly 25 percent aggregate gain.

Conversely, non-automotive travel – transit, bicycle, walking, etc. – would increase from around 9 percent of total travel to just over 10 percent by 2035.

Putting it another way, even if the blueprint becomes reality – by no means a certainty – residents of the six-county region would remain overwhelmingly dependent on their cars, which means its network of roads and streets would continue to be very important.

What's true in the Sacramento area is true for all other urban areas of this most populous state.

For all the talk about changing the way Californians live and travel – from single-family homes on streets to denser housing clusters on transit lines – the change is likely to be very slow at best.

That means that we shouldn't be neglecting the maintenance of the thousands of miles of state highways and local roads and streets that carry automotive traffic – but that's exactly what we've been doing.

California has the nation's worst traffic congestion and, according to the Federal Highway Administration, the nation's second worst pavement conditions.

The California Transportation Commission says the state has more than a half-trillion dollars of unmet transportation needs, and a coalition of local governments says it needs $82 billion more over the next decade to bring local streets and roads up to snuff.

We have been living off the investments made by California during the post-World War II era and failing to maintain the roadway network that earlier generations of politicians and voters built.

We should think of those unmet road maintenance and reconstruction needs as a debt that should be repaid – not unlike the unfunded liabilities that state and local governments have been running up for public employee pensions and health care.

Repaying the roadway debt wouldn't be cheap. Just meeting the $82 billion in local needs would cost the equivalent of a 56-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase. But ignoring it while spending billions on a bullet train system that Californians neither need nor want would be the height of folly.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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