A determination earlier this year that California has missed federal highway safety targets in recent years has renewed criticisms that Sacramento is prioritizing climate change policies over driver safety and jeopardizing completion of important transportation projects in Kern County.
The U.S. Department of Transportation told Caltrans on April 24 the state failed to achieve three out of five safety standards between 2014 and 2018, including five-year averages for highway fatalities and serious injuries, and that California didn't make "significant progress" during that period.
Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin pledged in response to adopt "hard targets" that will act as safety milestones and focus some of the agency's spending on reducing traffic fatalities and serious injuries.
It's too early to expect results from Omishakin's plan but some say the deeper problem is California's preference for investing aggressively in transit, bicycle and pedestrian projects while giving a back seat to highway improvements with strong safety components.
HIGHWAYS 46 AND 58
Among those calling for greater focus on California highway safety is Ahron Hakimi, a transportation planner serving as executive director of the Kern Council of Governments. He asserted state spending on transit and other projects intended to reduce vehicle miles driven in the state has come at the expense of local highway improvements.
He pointed to two projects of local importance that, though not classified as safety improvements, are expected to reduce traffic accidents. One would add truck passing lanes to Highway 58 between Bakersfield and Tehachapi while the other would add two lanes to Highway 46 in Lost Hills.
Both projects have been planned and discussed for years but still haven't been built.
Hakimi said they would have been fully funded by now if the projects consisted of adding bike lanes or improving bus routes because "those funds flow very freely."
Caltrans officials "are choosing ... to spend more and more and more money on projects that are not on the highways,” he said.
Others who agree highway projects are being shortchanged in California say part of the problem is faulty government analyses that inflate transit ridership projections.
Marc Joffe, senior policy analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, said bicycle and train projects in Northern California have posted underwhelming ridership numbers after exceeding their budgets in some cases.
"If more reasonable ridership estimates were used, the capital and operating costs per passenger would raise serious questions as to whether the project is worth the money," Joffe said by email.
Reason Foundation Vice President Adrian Moore, who lives in Tehachapi, said politics often end up skewing what are otherwise well-planned highway improvement projects.
"The legislature tends to demand that all jurisdictions get a chunk of money, regardless of relative priorities," he wrote in an email. "At the same time, politically transit, biking and walking are the rage, despite really low share of travel."
Progressive policymakers often prefer investments in transit, bicycle lanes and walking paths because they tend to reduce commuters' reliance on vehicles that emit greenhouse gases.
This approach, associated with an urban design movement called New Urbanism, has been embraced by politicians intent on fighting climate change. Some have argued that spending taxpayer money on highway projects serves to increase societal dependence on vehicles.
Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said by text message that reducing fatalities and addressing climate change "are both priorities for the department and are not mutually exclusive."
Asserting that improving highway safety involves more than just widening highways and allowing traffic to move more quickly, he said during the past year Caltrans has completed $620 million in safety projects involving improvements such as guardrails, lighting, wider shoulders and rumble strips. He added that the department plans to invest an additional $900 million in safety improvements.
Caltrans will continue working with the state Office of Traffic Safety and other agencies to understand traffic safety trends "and will focus funds on projects that will reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries."
"Equally important, pedestrian fatalities were about 24 percent of total fatalities on California's public roads in 2017," he continued. "The department has installed crosswalks and bike lanes and is making additional investments, such as the recently approved $42 million at the last California Transportation Commission, to improve access and safety for bikes and walking."