Caltrans Director Dougherty Discusses Future of Transportation in California

October 8, 2014

The director of Caltrans told transportation faculty, researchers and students Tuesday, April 15, that the state’s DOT was committed to a more holistic, multimodal  approach toward moving people, not just cars.

In a wide-ranging talk followed by a question-and-answer session in Banatao Auditorium, Malcolm Dougherty, who has worked for Caltrans for 21 years and was named director almost two years ago, outlined the immensity of the state’s transportation system, its extreme financial constraints, as well as his hopes for expanding the system by embracing new technologies and new options for mobility.
 
He said he would not talk about the new Bay Bridge span due to time limitations, but added the bridge was over-built not under-built, and a “significant accomplishment” in terms of seismic safety.
 
Following the public session, he met for two hours with the Institute’s faculty and researchers. They described the various areas of research they were conducting, from using activity-based data to model more realistic travel scenarios, to establishing “connected corridors” that utilize new technologies to keep traffic moving on heavily congested transportation corridors.
 
They also raised concerns about support for basic research rather than project-directed work, as well as equity issues related to who has access to new technologies such as smartphones and apps and who does not and therefore may be unable to take advantage of new mobility options.
 

A Rough Financial Road Ahead

 
Dougherty began his talk by describing the difficult financial landscape for new projects as well as maintenance of the state’s 50,000 lane miles, which carry 35 million vehicles per year.
 
ITS Director Samer Madanat (left) and Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty
 
Gas tax money, a mainstay of California’s transportation funding for nearly a century, has “only one-third of the buying power that it used to,” due to greater fuel efficiency of gasoline vehicles and the growing number of hybrid and all-electric cars.
 
“The amount of miles traveled is going up while the amount of fuel used is going down. It’s a broken model for financing transportation,” he said.
 
The passage of Proposition 1B in 2006 provided nearly $20 billion in additional funds, money used to improve bridges, repave roads, and build new tunnels—the first in decades—such as the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel and the twin tunnels of Devil’s Slide. But the law stipulated that Prop. 1B funding must be spent by the end of 2012, and now it’s gone.
 
Similarly, in 2009 the federal economic stimulus plan pumped money into some of the state’s 600 ongoing transportation projects, but that too is coming to an end, and federal transportation spending through MAP 21 will also be out of funds by this fall. 
 
“This is very worrisome,” he said, noting that about a quarter of California’s transportation funds come from the federal government. “The feds must address this, but I’m not holding my breath.”
 
A saving grace has been the rise of “self-help” counties, which have provided local funds by taxing residents in order to repair and build transportation infrastructure. At the same time, it complicates Caltrans’ role.
 
“It’s their money, it’s locally raised. But we need to make sure we’re managing it as a state transportation system. Generally we’re working on the same piece of music, but we have to make sure it’s the right investment for the overall system,” he said.
 
Within these financial constraints, Dougherty ticked off a number of improvements that have been made, mostly to the road system, in recent years.
 
“You may not believe it, but our pavement is in the best shape ever,” he said, noting that only 16 percent in the state is in a state of distress compared to 25 percent a few years ago. The goal is to reduce that amount to 10 percent.
 
He said Caltrans had also cut in half from 900 the number of state bridges needing work.
 

Responding to Criticism

 
Dougherty said he “took to heart” the criticisms leveled at Caltrans in two external reports, which concluded, in part, that the agency was too auto-centric and not adequately flexible in terms of solving the state's myriad mobility problems. He said he has moved to re-set the agency’s mission to reflect needed changes.
 
“Our mission is to improve mobility. We’re not just a highway system. We need to provide a safe, sustainable, and integrated system to enhance livability.”
 
He acknowledged that sustainability includes air quality and energy efficiency, noting that 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from its transportation sector, “and we need to move that needle.”
 
“Really, if I could get half the trucks off the road we’d be safer, more efficient and sustainable,” he said, but added that was economically unrealistic given that 40 percent of container freight comes into the country through the California ports to be distributed elsewhere.
 
Instead, he promoted a voluntary vehicle-miles-traveled pricing pilot project similar to Oregon’s. He acknowledged that it would likely be unpopular for a variety of reasons, but thought privacy fears could be dispelled with a pilot and would serve to “start the conversation about pricing.”
 
Dougherty also said he was an active supporter of transit, bicycle and pedestrian programs, pointing to his endorsement on April 11 of the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ guidelines, which provide street design options to promote cycling and walking.
 
He said he supports opportunities for Public Private Partnerships and would welcome partnering with a Google or Apple, for example, to help steer people around congestion.
 

The Role of Research

 
In a follow-up meeting with Berkeley faculty and researchers, ITS Director Samer Madanat said Caltrans had long utilized the university’s transportation experts to identify research areas early—sometimes ten or more years ahead of a trend. But in recent years the agency had not looked for that support from the university.
 
ITS Assistant Director Laura Melendy presents a Cal water bottle to Caltrans chief Dougherty
 
Professor Dan Chatman echoed that concern, suggesting university research should “inform” the agency’s goals rather than support pre-determined goals.
 
Professor Mark Hansen wondered if Caltrans might understate the importance of before and after analyses of projects.
 
Dougherty responded by describing his need for balancing short-term and long-term research with limited funding.
 
Right now, “we’re trying to solve every problem” with diminishing highway funds, he added.
 
--Christine Cosgrove