California can make traffic less of a nightmare. But can we agree on how?

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Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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Every Californian knows the best way to deal with our state’s soul-crushing traffic problems: get everyone else out of their car so I can stay in mine.

Moving beyond that admittedly self-serving solution, The Sacramento Bee’s California Influencers are in two camps when it comes to how the state can confront the transportation crisis that threatens our economy, our environment and our quality of life.

One group believes the state must provide as many inexpensive and convenient alternatives as possible for those who can avoid single-car commuting.

“We’ll never be able to build enough freeways to solve our transportation problem,” said former Fresno Bee Editor Jim Boren, now the executive director of Fresno State’s Institute for Media and Public Trust. “If we are serious about reducing traffic congestion, our leaders must be willing to make difficult political choices that many members of the public might not initially support.”

State Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, agreed.

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“Congestion will continue unabated unless we actually make it easier to use modes of travel other than the automobile,” Bloom said. “Doing so will require four key elements: investing in public transit, building bicycle and pedestrian-friendly streets, focusing on transit-oriented housing near job centers, and managing excess demand in heavily impacted area.”

Amanda Eaken, director of Transportation and Climate for the National Resources Defense Council, expanded Bloom’s last suggestion into an idea known as “congestion pricing,” in which drivers pay a fee to use heavily-congested areas during times of peak use.

“For those who continue to drive in urban areas, we lack an organizing system of supply and demand,” said Eaken, calling for “the common sense idea that we get what we pay for when we use a utility like roads and highways.”

But other Influencers argue just as strongly that increased road capacity – enabled by advances in transportation technology – is a more effective way of easing the California’s traffic woes.

“As more electric vehicles, clean diesel and autonomous fleets become a reality, it means that California planners need to change their tune,” said state Senator Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield). “Sacramento Democrats need to start thinking how can we support the decisions our people are making, embrace the new reality, and start building the transportation network our people want because our families and economy depend on it.”

San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford agreed.

“California is the center of technological innovation, yet we are still mired in transportation methods from last century that do not work for most of us,” Rutherford said. “Technology can help us drive more safely and efficiently, but as long as we set our sights on shoving people onto transit that doesn’t go where they need to, it’s a futile effort that results in the nightmare we all complain about.”

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Former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, now president and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, pointed to the need to address regional economic imbalances between inland and coastal California as a necessary aspect of the transportation solution as well.

“There is a direct correlation between the hyper-concentration of private capital and jobs in coastal California and the nastiest, life-impacting traffic congestion in the state,” said Swearengin. “Relocating business investment within existing cities in the Central Valley and Inland Empire which have capacity to accommodate job investments will reduce congestion in Coastal California and increase economic opportunities in the interior of the state.”

California Business Roundtable President Rob Lapsley agreed.

“Forcing inland residents to travel hours for work each day simply because they cannot afford to live near coastal job centers is not a sustainable economic model,” Lapsley said. “Prioritizing employer-oriented development will be critical to help alleviate traffic in the future.”

Other Influencers from across the ideological spectrum also stressed the link between the state’s transportation and housing challenges.

“California’s housing shortage has not just created an affordability crisis; it has increased commute times and negatively impacted the state’s working families,” said Jennifer Svec, legislative advocate for the California Association of Realtors. “Job growth continues to outpace housing starts, causing rents to rise faster than wages. This has resulted in families moving farther and farther away from their jobs, increasing commute times and placing more pressure on the state’s infrastructure.”

Lisa Hershey, executive director of Housing California, agreed.

“Workers vital to our economy – like child care providers, health home aides, and service workers – aren’t getting paid enough to keep up with skyrocketing rents,” Hershey said. “Local planning must ensure homes for workers earning lower incomes are built near jobs and reliable public transit, so they aren’t forced to make long commutes by car.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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