Two cost estimates of needed pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure differ wildly

Every four years, the Southern California Association of Governments lays out its expectations for the region’s next 25 years of transportation investments. It’s known as the Regional Transportation Plan, and the metropolitan planning organization recently released a draft of the latest RTP. In light of the state of California’s passage of SB 375, a bill requiring the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions produced under such planning efforts, this latest RTP includes the document’s highest ever amount of funding expectations for “active transportation,” or pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure: $6 billion dollars. It’s seemingly a drop in the bucket, with the RTP totaling more than $477 billion. But this $6 billion is a more than three-fold increase from the $1.8 billion estimated by the last RTP in 2008.

Still, the $6 billion proposed isn’t nearly enough, according to officials at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. By their own calculations, the region would need to spend $40 billion over the next 25 years to create the sort of walkable and bikeable communities it says it wants. That’s nearly eight times as much as SCAG is recommending.

“This was the best balance that we could think of that’s realistic,” says Douglas Williford, SCAG’s deputy executive director of planning and programs.

The RTP is a complex collection of regional transportation planning suggestions targeting six counties, 191 cities and more than 18 million residents, and looking out 25 years into the future. It includes estimated costs for a variety of transportation projects, including freeways, toll roads, truck-only lanes, public transit and active transportation. Federal law requires that it be a “constrained” plan based on “reasonable” sources of funds for each part of the plan, according to Williford. He argues that if there was no requirement for reasonable funding, the ideal active transportation element of the RTP could run more than a trillion dollars.

“But like just about everything else in the RTP, money is the limiting factor,” he says.

The L.A. County Department of Public Health feels that its $40 billion estimate should be reasonable. They based their estimations on existing bicycle and pedestrian master plans in some cities in the region, and extrapolated them out to all 191 cities within SCAG’s jurisdiction. The cost estimates also include the costs of implementing bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure around all of the region’s 194 existing and planned rail stations.

“Our purpose in doing these calculations was not to give SCAG a funding recommendation. Our purpose was just to try to calculate what it would cost to build bikeable, walkable communities throughout the SCAG region, and hope that our cost estimations would help inform discussions about appropriate investments in active transportation,” says Gayle Haberman, a senior policy analyst at the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

She says there’s a clear connection between this type of transportation infrastructure and public health issues like obesity. Improving access to active transportation options can have a big impact on public health, she says.

“Our public health goal is to get people walking or biking or just physically active 30 minutes a day. And there’s a large body of research that shows that when you actually design communities for safe walking and biking, they will do it and it will lead to a reduction of chronic disease,” says Haberman. “It’s an enormous opportunity to improve public health.”

The largest element of the Public Health Department’s cost estimate is pedestrian access. They estimate that, over 25 years, the cost of improving and maintaining pedestrian infrastructure in the region will cost about $34.8 billion.

While Haberman says these estimates are rough and based on assumptions about how much infrastructure would be needed in each of the region’s 191 cities, she argues that they offer a more comprehensive guideline for what some of the cities in the region already have planned and what others maybe should consider as well.

Williford agrees that more cities should be planning for these levels of improvement into active transportation infrastructure, and notes that the RTP does not include any local funding mechanisms, such as city taxes. He says the $6 billion SCAG estimation would probably double if city-level funding sources were included. But that’s still far shy of the $40 billion mark.

Haberman is hopeful that this estimation will help encourage people to take part in the discussion about the RTP, which will be in the public comment phase until February 14 and will likely face adoption in April. Williford says this RTP has seen a far greater degree of public participation and interest than any previous, and he’s expecting the public comment period to inspire at least a few changes. The $6 billion isn’t likely to turn into $40 billion, but maybe it’ll start to edge a little closer.

Photo credit: Jim Young / Reuters

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