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New bill seeks cheaper, quicker path for California road projects

State Sen. Bill Dodd introduced a bill this week that would allow more road projects to bypass federal regulatory requirements, a move meant to reduce costs and shorten construction timelines.

The measure would extend to all California cities and counties a benefit currently in place for smaller communities where more simplified federal review takes place.

The streamlined process for projects funded in part or in whole by federal dollars, including roads, bridges and pedestrian pathways, would allow more of that money to go toward on-the-ground upgrades, Dodd said.

“That’s the type of thing people and taxpayers are demanding that we do, find ways not to be so bureaucratic,” he said. “Duplicating expenses on things doesn’t make sense. It’s why we feel so confident in moving forward on this.”

If passed and signed into law, the bill would remove the need for both the federal and state environmental analyses on roadway projects when federal money is built into the funding package. Because California’s environmental safeguards are considered much more stringent than the national requirements, the current process is viewed by policymakers as redundant and unnecessary.

“It’s an additional layer, and requires more time and money, and at end of the day doesn’t get you anywhere other than satisfying a checklist for another governmental entity,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a newly appointed member of the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “We need to make sure every dollar goes into the actual project and not into overhead. It’s definitely a positive step forward.”

Dodd, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee and previously served as the MTC’s chairman, said other infrastructure programs that leverage federal monies, such as the Safe Routes to School program for bicycle and pedestrian path improvements, could also benefit from the bill.

Generally, he estimated the legislation, SB 137, would create “significant” cost savings - 10 percent or more, depending on the size and scale of a road project.

“It could be much higher than that depending on the job and circumstances of each of project,” he said.

Dodd said he does not expect the bill to garner much opposition during the legislative process, terming it “a good, commonsense measure.” The bill already has the backing of the California State Association of Counties.

The Sonoma County Transportation Authority, which works to plan and fund local road and highway project, has signed on in support.

“Sen. Dodd’s bill is an excellent approach to helping cities and the county fix roads more quickly and less expensively,” Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Transportation Authority, said in a written statement. “While federal funds are critical to fix transportation problems, using them strategically on larger projects saves time and promotes greater efficiency.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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