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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Statewide Transportation Planning in California: Past Experience and Lessons for the Future


Since the passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, federal surface transportation legislation has mandated that state departments of transportation (DOTs) engage in increasingly collaborative and multi-modal transportation planning. Over the past decade state DOTs have had to reassess both their role in and approach to statewide transportation planning. Such reassessments, by their very nature, require one to consider pre-ISTEA (and TEA-21) planning efforts by state DOTs. What have been the driving forces – both issues and interest groups – shaping state transportation policy and how have they evolved over time? Reexamining the past allows us to look at the specific agency responses to these forces – both successes and failures – and offers lessons on the appropriate planning role for state-level transportation agencies.

This paper considers the experiences of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and its predecessor agencies in addressing the task of statewide transportation planning in California. The paper begins with the early efforts of the Bureau of Highways, in tandem with an array of good roads movement activists, to create the state highway system for California, and the paper ends in the present-day with its debates over the proper roles of state versus regional and local governments in transportation planning. The historical discussion is divided into eras of statewide transportation planning, with each era focused on a particular policy or planning issue or set of issues. The paper concludes with general observations on the themes and lessons suggested by the state’s experiences.

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