OCTA Grapples With California Policies Aimed at Reducing Carbon Emissions

April 12, 2021 Updated: April 12, 2021

State policies that aim to reduce carbon emissions in California by minimizing driving will impact planned future projects of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), officials say.

OCTA’s Director of Strategic Planning said at an April 12 meeting that state requirements designed to combat climate change aim to decrease the distance drivers travel and will cause difficulties for county transportation projects that seek to increase capacity.

“The state is now emphasizing reducing overall demand. What that means is it’ll be more difficult to implement capacity projects … than it has in the past,” Brotcke said. “In the past, the emphasis has been on reducing [traffic] congestion, and specifically reducing hours of delay.”

The state has “started to focus the transportation discussion on climate change, and the fact that the transportation sector is a large contributor to emissions, with nearly 40 percent of emissions coming from the transportation sector,” Brotcke said. “They are starting to emphasize transit, bike, and pedestrian travel over highway expansion.”

Legislation with metrics designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by minimizing vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and encouraging other modes of transportation—including the Governor’s Executive Order N-19-19 and Senate Bill 743 (SB 743)—will require OCTA to shift its focus from reducing congestion to reducing overall driving, Brotcke said.

He noted that since the state’s specific policies are still under development, their impacts on OCTA’s projects and funding priorities are not set in stone. OCTA may need to make “transit improvements, bike lane improvements, and the like, to essentially reduce VMT,” he said, making it more difficult to implement future projects.

One of the possible policies would require highways to be converted to allow access for bicycle and pedestrian use, Brotcke said, adding that OCTA’s current and future projects that are funding highway expansion “will be more difficult in the future, should these policies and plans be finalized.”

Many of OCTA’s current and future funded projects “may not be possible in the future should these policies be implemented,” he said, citing as an example its “Solutions for Congested Corridors” project, which emphasizes reducing traffic congestion and destination arrival times.

“Any projects that might increase VMT but reduce emissions will be problematic from a state perspective,” he said.

The requirements will create opportunities for state funding in other areas, Brotcke said, including bikeway projects, zero-emission buses, and efficiency improvements through technology.

Orange County Supervisor and OCTA Director Lisa Bartlett called the state’s requirements “a little bit nonsensical.”

“When you take a look at the state plan, what they’re proposing is just a real overreach by the state,” Bartlett said during the April 12 meeting. “There are things in the plan that frankly are really problematic.”

Bartlett said the funding for these plans could “really adversely impact” some of the county’s  future projects.

“I don’t think they understand the true impacts at the local level to us, from a funding perspective,” she said, mentioning freeway conversions and developer mandates as particularly challenging.

CEO Darrell Johnson cited OCTA’s concern with “the strategies, and the tactics in which they’re being implemented,” but emphasized the desire to maintain local decision-making and complete the projects promised to Orange County voters.

“[We will] try to strike a balance that balances the state goals with our local needs, so we’re providing infrastructure and benefit to all users of the system here in Orange County,” Johnson said.

Joked Director Brian Goodell, “Maybe we should just ban cars and have electric bikes on the freeways—that might be a good solution.”