Motions of Compliance

by Carolyn Chase


It may seem like a good idea to increase funding to relieve transportation system congestion, but wouldn't it make sense first to understand why the processes in place to deal with congestion management are doing such a miserable job with the billions we are already providing? And, how can we influence public policy to get some action in this matter?

What's really the matter with our regional transportation planning process? One glaring issue is that there are few forces pushing to improve performance standards, or holding any person, agency or representative accountable for them.

In 1990, hopeful voters passed statewide initiatives numbered 108, 111 and 116 that, among other things, purported to "enact a statewide traffic congestion relief program" and issued $3 billion worth of bonds for support. Just one problem - though the measures were marketed as "congestion relief" - the word congestion appeared no where in the measures except in the titles and the ballot arguments.

Evidently, the premise of the congestion relief was that simply by funding trains, congestion relief would follow. Arguments in favor at the time proposed optimistically: "Rail transit will remove thousands of automobiles from congested streets and highways, it will speed workers to and from their jobs and homes safely and it will reduce the dangerous pollution of the air we breathe."

Nice ideas. The roads to congestion hell are paved with them. But with a flow of some money assured, no one is really managing our transportation systems to actually improve performance with much of anything other than mind-bogglingly expensive and insufficient capacity increases, and "big brother" techno-ticketing systems. We have not provided the level of operating funds required to make transit services competitive with the car. And we continue to pour hundreds of millions into roads which fill with more traffic - as roads always do.

The results we are getting - worsening congestion and inadequate transit service and performance - are exactly the results the system is being managed to produce. It is even utterly consistent with our official regional "Congestion Management Plan." Everyone involved in the system seems to be merely going through what I dub the "motions of compliance," providing the bare minimum required to keep the spigot of federal and state dollars flowing to whatever systems the agencies can fund - regardless of any meaningful service or market performance issues.

The stated role of a Congestion Management Agency is to establish a congestion management program, as provided in Proposition 111 and later legislation, described as follows:

  • Sets up a performance review process, by mandating the designation of a network of transportation facilities, which will be periodically monitored for congestion, and by requiring the designation of a service standards for roadways and performance measures for all modes of travel.
  • Requires a program to analyze the impacts of land use decisions made by local jurisdictions on regional transportation systems, including an estimate of the costs associated with mitigating those impacts.
  • Requires a 7-year investment strategy, referred to as a Capital Improvement Program (CIP), to support the Congestion Management Program goals, to be updated biennially, and to link project eligibility for regional/state funding to the CIP.
  • Requires a computerized travel model and uniform database for estimating future transportation needs and impacts.
  • Requires the designation of a Congestion Management Agency (CMA) in each urban county, to develop and update the Congestion Management Program and monitor its progress over time.

Sounds pretty neat, eh? But have you ever heard of any of these things? There is nothing that links any of these nice programs to actual reductions in congestion. While a performance review process is established and required the designation of a service standard, checking into this a little further reveals the corruption of good intentions. The performance standards are a sham.

The performance standard debacle begins at the state legislative level. Here's my current favorite sentence from reading hundreds of pages of transportation plans and congestion management documents (this sentence refers to the congestion management performance standards set for our highways):

"In no case shall the LOS (Level of Service) standards established be below the level of service E or the current level, whichever is farthest from level of service A."

An honest author would have written it this way: "In no case shall the LOS (Level of Service) standards established be below the level of service E or F." F is the only other choice that "is farthest from level of service A." Talk about underachievement by design! Or perhaps they were just thinking ahead to when they will have to invent a new, lower LOS: G - for gridlock. In the meantime, the sad truth is that, they have established F0, F1, F2, F3 etc., where the numbers represent the number of hours that any segment could take to clear.

By the way, traffic begins backing up when system segments hit LOS D.
The "Traffic Description" for LOS D includes "congestion/delay" as "minimal to substantial" and "approaches unstable flow, heavy volumes, very limited freedom to maneuver." The next lower, LOS E, describes "congestion/delay" as "significant" and "maneuverability and psychological comfort extremely poor." LOS F describes congestion as "considerable to severe" and "stop and go" with "long queues forming behind breakdown points."

That "favorite" sentence is from state legislation (AB2419) adopted in November of 1997 on Congestion Management Program requirements. Not much of a requirement is it?

The recently released Draft Regional Transportation Plan prepared by SANDAG, which includes a required update to our region's Congestion Management Plan, provides no significant congestion management policy changes - nor reports any results related to monitoring its progress over time.

Without linkages between funding and performance, our transportation systems can only be expected to produce great demands for tax increases without any rational accountability for performance. As a matter of fact, agencies are demanding more funding while at the same time declaring the performance will continue - to put in indelicately - to suck. And they are doing no substantive analysis of alternative program mixes or approaches to do better.

While some are calling for easy approval and extension of transportation-related TransNet sales taxes, we should say no more tax increases without real standards. Such standards should preclude environmentally destructive options. Such standards should set market-based, competitive service levels in terms regular citizens can understand and deal with.

While state law sets low standards, there is nothing precluding local agencies and related elected and appointed officials from setting them higher. They just haven't.

The SANDAG equivalent to our north, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), initiated such a process, noting, "Old style engineering measures like Level of Service (LOS) may say a lot to a technical person, but they don't convey information to the general public." SCAG at least moved to establish "Performance Indicators" that consider transportation from a "user's perspective" stating that "Every day, millions of users consider rush hour congestion, speeds, ease of reliability of service, parking costs and other factors before making trip choices. SCAG's Performance Indicators are based on these 'common sense' criteria."

While adopting more meaningful indicators is important, SCAG has not taken the next and even more crucial step of linking performance with funding and real alternatives analysis. That could actually require agencies to think and act differently toward their planning processes. San Diego should undertake a process designed to address both these steps at once.

I do not know exactly what we should be building to improve our regional mobility issues. But I know that any systems that are not being designed and required to perform, will not perform. If we manage systems to Level F we will get Level F. If we manage systems to Level C, we might actually get to D. But my point is, we are not even trying. The system performance standards are so low as to be absurd. The commitment to demand side management strategies is minimal. The environmental damage of the proposed mix of projects is also unaddressed.

I have read the draft Regional Transportation Plan and it is decidedly not going to give us any relief whatsoever from the dysfunctional patterns we can all see today. As a matter of policy and approach, it perpetuates the existing processes and backs up congestion into our neighborhoods for miles as part of the plan!

There is little reason to believe that current failed policies, management, and oversight - if continued as proposed - will provide for significant congestion relief, regardless of how much money we provide.

Unfortunately, few of the people in leadership positions in San Diego's existing conglomeration of transportation-related agencies and officials are even asking questions about system performance and demand management. Where are the officials calling for anything other than a tax increase for a system that is already failing to fulfill on past expensive promises? Are they really saying that we can't do any better?