San Mateo and Contra Costa – Can we prevent highways from harming the environment?

A front line in the battle for climate-friendly transportation is being fought on the wonky grounds of how highway projects will be planned and evaluated.   Just last week, the State of California issued a new report showing a continuing trend – the state is making overall progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but vehicle transportation emissions keep going up.

The failure in cutting transportation emissions goes back to a failed strategy of trying to relieve the pain of commute congestion by adding capacity to roadways, which leads to increased driving, which leads to more congestion and more pollution. 

And moving toward electric vehicles will not meet the state’s climate goals fast enough. A recent report commissioned by state law concluded that driving miles need to be reduced by 25% by 2030, even if electric vehicle market share increases 10x in that time frame.

Manage highways differently – the funding rules matter

Advocates and forward-looking regional leaders are trying to manage highways differently, to alleviate congestion while reducing GHG emissions.  Strategies to do this involve moving more people in fewer cars, with highway express buses and carpool programs, express lanes that speed buses and carpools while funding transit options; equity programs to make sure all have access to low-carbon options. 

To drive this change, highway funds need to be spent differently. And that is being debated and discussed right now, in the plan for an upcoming ballot measure in Contra Costa County, and the plans to implement a ballot measure that was passed last November in San Mateo County. 

Contra Costa County is considering the policies for a measure it is looking to put on the ballot in March, 2020.   With advocate input, the CCTA’s proposal includes a Greenhouse Gas goal for the highway system. But the sticking point is how to enforce this goal in project selection.  There are two details that matter:

  • Designing and choosing project options that don’t worsen pollution.  To do this, it is helpful to use metrics to evaluate projects that value moving more people in fewer vehicles – measurements of person-throughput and person-delay, rather than measurements of vehicle throughput and vehicle delay.  But the latest draft still calls for prioritizing highway projects based on reducing vehicle delay, not person delay.
  • Advocates want new highway projects to be planned to not increase vehicle miles travelled, which are correlated with greenhouse gas and particulate pollution. But if a project does increase VMT, advocates are asking for the increase to be mitigated with funds to reduce driving miles elsewhere, with transit, carpool, active transportation, and other measures. 

In San Mateo County, the ballot measure has already passed, with voter-approved language to reduce VMT and GHG, and encourage transit and active transportation over solo driving.. Now, the San Mateo County Transportation Authority is creating a Strategic Plan with a process to implement this goal in the way it chooses highway projects.  

To meet the voter intent, advocates want the SMCTA to use the metrics for moving more people instead of more cars – reducing VMT, increasing person throughput, reducing person delay.   

In San Mateo County, there are many highway projects that have been sitting on a shelf, with designs and plans from decades ago.  When projects are taken off the shelf, advocates want old projects to be reconsidered with the new goals in mind – adding features like transit/express lanes and bus priority, so that projects are implemented in ways that meet the new voter-approved goals. 

Higher-level standards for the state or region

Right now, these battles are being fought on a county-by-county basis, as each county decides how to to prioritize funds for transportation improvements. But climate change is a global issue, and a state and regional priority.   Rather than fight these battles for each ballot measure, it would be good to have regional and state standards to manage highways differently to move more people in fewer cars.