California State Transportation, Explained

Nathan S. Holmes
Dec 4, 2019 · 15 min read
110 Freeway Lights — Shawn Park

The state of California spends a lot of money on transportation. For example, the FY 2019–20 state budget for transportation was almost $23 billion.

This article will spotlight four state-level transportation departments that handle a large portion of this money: the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the California Transportation Commission (CTC), the California Air Resources Board (CARB), and the California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA).

The streamlined version:

Caltrans: Maintains freeways and highways

CTC: Determines how federal and state transportation funds are spent

CARB: Fights air pollution and climate change

CAHSRA: Aim to build a train to swiftly connect northern and southern CA.

What follows are short overviews of how these organizations were formed and the programs they currently operate.

CALTRANS

Formal Name: California Department of Transportation

Year Formed: 1972

Budget: $14.7 billion (to be spent throughout the state)

Staff: 20,600

What Caltrans Does: Maintains freeways and highways.

State law leaves the oversight of local roads to local jurisdictions, but Caltrans controls the highways and freeways that both link and run through our cities.

It’s helpful to understand these two types of roads:

  • Freeways (like the 101 or the 5 in Los Angeles) are large multi-lane roads that are “free” from all other crossing traffic and adjacent land uses. They generally require long ramps to access them.
  • Highways (like the Pacific Coast Highway) are also large multi-lane roads, but they are crossed by other roads, have traffic signals, and can be lined with adjacent land-uses like office buildings, stores, and housing.

In the year 1972, during his first stint as governor, Jerry Brown consolidated the state’s powerful road-building department (the CA Division of Highways) with other transportation-related departments to form the official “California Department of Transportation.”

But Caltrans as an organization has roots that go much further back. The state’s road-building unit goes all the way back to the the California “Department of Highways” that was formed in 1897. This Highways group would operate within the state’s Department of Public Works for decades, eventually becoming the California “Division of Highways.” (The historian Matthew Roth provides rich detail of this Caltrans history here.) In the decades following WWII, the California Division of Highways became a workhorse that incorporated freeways into its portfolio and began a massive building program that profoundly influenced the history of urban development in the California’s major cities.

How California and the Los Angeles region went “all in” on its freeways is a more complex story than will be told here. For those interested, I recommend reading this article on the rise of freeway program after WWII, and then this article on its decline in the 1970's.

A map of the state’s highways and freeways

As of 2020, Caltrans no longer builds many new freeways. But it does shoulder the huge task of maintaining the extensive existing system of freeways and highways throughout the state.

Caltrans still occasionally adds freeway lanes at congested parts of the system, like the recent addition of a lane to the 405 through the Sepulveda Pass in Los Angeles. Indeed, it does this despite well-documented research showing that such high-cost lane additions do little to alleviate traffic congestion.

About 2/3 of the state’s entire $23 billion transportation budget goes to Caltrans. And a very large portion of the Caltrans budget comes from fuel taxes and commercial vehicle weight fees.

Every time ordinary people and truckers fill up at the pump, a portion of the money goes pays for roads. A car’s average fill-up of about 12 gallons sends roughly $7 to the state, and most of that money gets funneled to Caltrans and local cities to pay for road maintenance.

Caltrans implements two large and significant programs:

(1) The State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP), which keeps freeways and highways in good condition. The SHOPP program budget was $3.8 billion in FY 2017–18.

(2) The State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), which in theory “improves roads” in a variety of ways but in practice usually adds roadway capacity in order to accommodate more cars. The STIP program budget was $325 million in FY 2017–18.

The fact that the SHOPP “repair” budget is more than ten times greater than the STIP “improvement” budget reflects the fact that these days Caltrans is primarily about taking care of freeways and highways rather than building new ones.

Caltrans is based in the state capital of Sacramento, but they split the state into 13 districts. (See map at left.) Los Angeles is in District 7, which also includes Ventura County.

District 7 is the largest Caltrans District in terms of population, containing 25% of California’s people. The district spends between $2.5 and 3 billion on highway and freeway construction every year and employs almost 1,500 employees.

You can find the headquarters of Caltrans District 7 at this huge building in downtown LA across the street from Los Angeles City Hall.

Caltrans District 7 headquarters

CTC

Formal Name: California Transportation Commission

Year Formed: 1978

Budget: $5.4M

Staff: 13-member part-time commission supported by 24 full-time professional and administrative staff

What the CTC Does: Allocates federal and state funds for transportation throughout the state

The CTC was created in 1978 through the consolidation of four independent boards, commissions, and authorities that provided oversight for different transportation areas. (The CA Highway Commission, the State Transportation Board, the State Aeronautics Board, and the CA Toll Bridge Authority). Some of the CTC’s duties involve advising the governor and state legislature on state transportation issues and creating guidelines for state transportation programs like the ones created by the recent SB1 gas tax.

But the CTC’s primary role is allocating funding for several state transportation programs. As mentioned in my piece on LA regional transportation, transportation funding is increasingly coming from local sales taxes as opposed to state and federal gas taxes and fees. But the CTC still allocates a huge amount of money to transportation all over the state.

In FY 2016–17, California received roughly $3.5 billion from the Federal Highway Administration $1.5 billion from the Federal Transit Administration. A portion of these funds is passed through directly to local and regional governments to determine how to spend on transportation infrastructure. The other portion is allocated to state transportation programs, most of which are implemented by Caltrans.

Three of the most important funding programs (two of which were mentioned earlier in the Caltrans section) that the CTC oversees are:

  • The State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP). This is a four-year list of highway system “repair” projects that is updated every two years. The SHOPP is implemented by Caltrans, and the 2018 SHOPP plans on spending about $4 billion per year.
  • The State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) is a five-year transportation program that allocates funds to “improvements” on state highways, intercity rail, local roads, and transit infrastructure. Like the SHOPP, it is updated every two years and is implemented primarily by Caltrans. After getting an injection of additional SB-1 funds in 2018, the total $4 billion STIP to be spent over five years contained $3 billion in highway and road projects (75%) and $700M in rail and transit projects (20%). This comes out to an average of $800 million per year.
  • The Active Transportation Program (ATP) was created in 2013 to fund “active” modes of transportation like walking and biking. The 2019 Active Transportation Fund Estimate authorizes spending $233 million per year on these projects throughout the state.
Yellow Tires — Y Diaz

ARB or CARB

Formal Name: California Air Resources Board

Year Formed: 1967

Budget: $1.5 billion

Staff: 1,550 positions

What the CARB Does: Develops programs to protect air quality and fight climate change.

Unlike Caltrans and the CTC, the Air Resources Board is not under the purview of the California State Transportation Agency, which oversees all the departments related to transportation. Rather, CARB falls under the umbrella of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency.

Here is a very brief history of how CARB was formed over three decades, mostly taken from their website:

  • The 1940’s: The widespread popularity of cars in Los Angeles was beginning to make the air terrible. In response, people in the region created the first formal governmental entity to tackle the issue: the LA County Air Pollution Control District.
  • The 1950’s: State officials in Sacramento began tackling the air quality issue during this decade after the pioneering work of Dr. Arie Aagen-Smit of CalTech showed a clear link between auto emissions and smog. The Bureau of Air Sanitation was formed within the California Department of Public Health in 1955, and this body would set the first air quality standards that identified pollution levels that could endanger the health of sensitive groups of people.
  • The 1960’s: The California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board was created in 1960 to regulate tailpipe emissions. In 1967, California Air Resources Board (CARB) was formed through a merger of the Bureau of Air Sanitation and the California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board, thus bringing the link between air quality and auto emissions squarely under the supervision of one organization.
Republican Governor Ronald Reagan signing bill to create CARB.

Also in 1967, Congress passed the Federal Air Quality Act of 1967, which gave California the ability to “set more stringent air quality rules due to California’s unique geography, weather and expanding number of people and vehicles.”

This waiver has lasted several decades and allowed California to become a national leader in fostering both emissions technologies and regulatory frameworks that reduce air pollution and fight climate change. It is this waiver that the Trump administration is now trying to undo, and which the state of California is challenging in court.

At the present moment, the list of programs run by CARB as it fights on multiple environmental fronts is a so wide-ranging that it borders on surreal- see the full list here.

Unfortunately, the official CARB website isn’t very clear on outlining its main programs clearly for the layperson, but you can get a general overview based on its 2018–19 budget.

CARB slots most of its budgeted programs (95%) into three broad categories.

The largest program is the Climate Change program (43% of its budget). In recent years the transportation sector replaced power plants as the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions (see graphic below), and CARB has a mandate from Assembly Bill 32 to lead a reduction of greenhouse gases.

The second largest CARB program is devoted the Mobile Sources program (30% of the budget), which is mostly coming up with ways to make cars pollute less. There are a whole bunch of different CARB programs to regulate polluting vehicles, make fuel sources cleaner, and incentivize non-polluting vehicles.

The third largest CARB program is the Community Air Protection Program (CAPP) that oversees programs to reduce air pollution in California’s most burdened communities (23% of the budget). Pollution tends to be higher in lower-income communities and communities of color, and the initiatives within this larger program try to remediate this disproportionate impact. Here is a map of the state’s communities that fall within this program:

Source: CARB

Like Caltrans and the CTC, CARB headquarters are at the state capital in Sacramento. CARB currently has an air pollution lab in the city of El Monte just east of Los Angeles, and expects to establish a Southern California headquarters with a move to a new building near the campus of UC-Riverside in 2021.

CAHSRA

Formal Name: California High Speed Rail Authority

Year Formed: 1996

Budget: Per the project’s 2018 Business Plan, Phase 1 of the project is projected to cost between $60–100 billion. (There are a number of unknown cost factors associated with a project of this size, duration, and complexity.)

Staff: 180 as of April 2019, though most of the work is being performed by consultants and construction firms.

What the CAHSRA Does: Aims to build a train that will travel quickly between Northern and Southern California, stopping at select cities along the way.

Phase 1 of the line will connect San Francisco to the LA area in two hours and forty minutes, stopping along the way in central cities like Fresno and Bakersfield. (See the blue portion of the map below. )

Phase 2 will build a spur to Sacramento on the northern portion and a spur to San Diego on the southern portion. (See the yellow portion of the map.)

Some project timeline highlights:

  • Construction began in 2015 after a groundbreaking ceremony in Fresno.
  • The most recent 2018 Business plan calls for opening an initial operating segment between San Jose and Bakersfield in 2027.
  • The complete Phase 1 between San Francisco and Anaheim is aiming for completion by 2033.
  • Phase 2 extensions to Sacramento and San Diego do not have an anticipated deadline yet.

Governance

The project is being run by the California High Speed Rail Authority or “CAHSRA.” CaHSRA falls within the umbrella of CalSTA, the agency in in the Governor’s cabinet that oversees all of the major transportation state departments (including Caltrans, CHP, and the DMV).

CAHSRA was established by an act of the California State Legislature and in 2008 voters approved a plan for high speed rail that included a $9 billion bond to start construction.

Unlike other transportation organizations like Caltrans with a broad range of activities, CAHSRA is a state agency with a single objective: building a high speed rail line. This involves planning, designing, constructing and eventually operating the line.

While CAHSRA reports to the Governor, they are also overseen by a nine-member board: five members are appointed by the governor, two members are appointed by the CA Senate Committee on Rules, and two members are appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly.

Cost and Delays

The high speed rail project is controversial largely because people disagree on whether the benefits of the project justify its significant cost.

The debate over the project intensifies every year in light of the fact that the project is more expensive than initially projected and is many years behind schedule.

The project is behind schedule for many reasons, including problems acquiring land for construction in the Central Valley. But main reason the overall project is delayed is because it has taken longer than anticipated to complete the environmental review process for the whole project. While construction is now underway in the Central Valley, other segments in the northern and southern sections of the state are still trying to get environmental clearance by 2022.

Even if the environmental hurdle is cleared by 2022, challenge remain in securing funding for final design and future construction. But for now the project is moving ahead.

The CAHSRA releases a Business Plan every two years, and the 2020 Business Plan that is due in the coming months should provide clues to the project’s path forward.

Debate

There is no shortage of opinions on this high-profile project.

For several years now Ralph Vartabedian of the LA Times has been a consistent critic of the project and its cost-over-runs — you can read his ongoing coverage here.

The coverage offered by the Streetsblog network here offers a more positive perspective — their writers tend to place the ongoing challenges facing the project in the context of other large infrastructure projects that frequently experience delays and cost over-runs, like the lane expansion of the 405 in Los Angeles.

And though it was written a few years ago, James Fallows of the Atlantic has written a terrific series of articles covering the pros and cons of High Speed Rail in California, with a table of contents here. After weighing all the evidence, Fallows comes down in favor of the project. In a more recent check-in, Steve Lopez of the LA Times looks at the project with a bit more skepticism.

Why Start Building in the Middle?

One consistent question about the project pertains to why they decided to build the “middle portion” of the line in the Central Valley first. The answer: because it is easier to secure land and build in this relatively open area as opposed to doing the same in California’s major urban clusters. Building this middle section first arguably allows the project to make significant progress within a relatively shorter period of time.

That said, with the project beset by so many issues, some elected officials are now advocating for moving the initial funding back towards improving rail on the portions of the line near the Bay Area and the Los Angeles area, where the results will be more tangible for a larger amount of people.

Actual Travel Time

The proposed “two hours and forty minutes” time metric for a trip between San Francisco and LA can be deceptive.

Your door-to-door trip from your home in one city to your final destination in the other city is likely to run much longer when you factor in getting to the station (in traffic), arriving early enough so you don’t miss your train, getting through security, waiting in line to board…..and then waiting to off-board, getting out of the destination train station, and traveling to your final destination (in traffic).

When all is said and done, the total High Speed Rail travel time at closer to five or six hours for most door-door trips from the Bay Area to the LA area.

High Speed Rail vs. Hyperloop

It’s also helpful to understand that when Elon Musk’s Hyperloop team describes a potential 36 minute trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles, they are talking about a very different project than High Speed Rail.

The 36-minute Hyperloop, assuming it even gets built, would be a direct trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles. High Speed Rail is trying to do much more than that — it is trying to link cities throughout the state into a series of more densely populated and economically vibrant nodes around each station. Stations in cities like Fresno and Bakersfield aren’t just for transportation- it is envisioned that these cities could also grow vertically in a more environmentally friendly way around train stations instead of only growing horizontally and taking over greenfield land.

For this reason, comparing the SF-LA Hyperloop to High Speed Rail is apples and oranges. The two projects have significantly different objectives.

— — — — — —

I have tried here to provide a brief overview here of these state-level transportation departments that implement programs of great consequence.

The summary version would be: the CTC gives a good deal of money to Caltrans to accommodate our desire to drive places, while CARB tries to reign in the negative consequences of all that driving and CAHSRA tries to build a project that will offer an alternative to long-distance driving (and flying).

Of course, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) can be a good thing- it means people are going to work, visiting friends and family, and visiting all the destinations on offer in a great place like California. But VMT has negative consequences as well- it make air quality worse, it clogs up roads with traffic congestion, and it worsens climate change.

In theory, the solution to this inconsistency is a very careful reduction of VMT in such a manner that even though we are driving less, our overall mobility and ability to access all the things we need and enjoy actually increases. This can be done if people replace car trips with walking, biking, and taking public transit for a portion of their travel.

Photo — Y Diaz

No doubt: this is a very, very difficult needle to thread. I won’t go into the complexity of this needed shift here, but it is something that California needs to tackle if we are serious about reducing air pollution and fighting climate change.

At present, our transportation funding is not aligned with our air pollution and climate change goals. While High Speed Rail might play a significant future role towards these goals, it is still a project clouded by uncertainty and should not distract us from a focus on where most travel actually occurs — in our local communities.

More pressing is the fact that the amount of money the CTC and Caltrans devote to fixing and improving roads for vehicles is significantly larger than the money allotted other modes like biking and public transit. This discrepancy undermines the efforts of CARB to meet the state’s air pollution and climate change goals.

To that end, the CTC and CARB are now meeting twice a year to better coordinate their joint efforts in transportation. Thus far, the relationship seems to be proceeding relatively slowly- you can read Streetsblog CA’s great coverage of the first meeting here and their third and most recent meeting here.

But it’s a start. And the more people become aware of these important state-level organizations and what they do for transportation, the more the state can move towards accomplishing critical milestones that impact our health and the environment.

— — — — — —

The best place for keeping up with the news relating to California transportation is Streetsblog California. If you are looking for more Los Angeles explaining, see my article here on how to make sense of all the different jurisdictions in Los Angeles, here to understand the streets of Los Angeles, and here for an overview of LA regional transportation. Thanks for reading!

Nathan S. Holmes

Written by

Live in Los Angeles. Background in teaching and urban planning.

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