On Board With... Senator Dave Cortese (D - San Jose)

Transit California sat down with California State Senator Dave Cortese, who serves as Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and represents parts of Santa Clara County, including the cities of Cupertino, Los Gatos, Campbell, Saratoga, Monte Sereno, and parts of San Jose. 

Transit California: You serve as Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, which considers legislation related to a variety of public transit concerns including the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the California Transportation Commission, Caltrans, transit authorities, intercity rail, mobile sources of air pollution, vehicles, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and vessels. What are some of your key state transit policy priorities for your Chairmanship? 

I’d like to make sure legacy transportation projects throughout the state have funding and a path to completion, for example the BART extension in the SF Bay Area. It is my goal to improve the quality of public transit to attract more riders, helping transit achieve financial sustainability without overburdening taxpayers.

Transit California: You are the author of SB 915, a measure that would have allowed cities with populations of over 250,000, and cities that share a border with cities of this population, to enact ordinances regulating aspects of autonomous vehicle service (AVS) operations, including those AVS operations that provide commercial passenger services. Can you talk about how this bill evolved to its current form and how the proposal would have affected California transit agencies?

Local governments deserve a role in the regulation of AV services. The introduced language applied to all cities and counties because I believe they all know their streets and roads best. As the bill moved through the process, we received a lot of pushback. Scaling the bill back to cities with a population of 250k+ (the 15 biggest cities) accomplished two things. It reduced the fiscal tag of the bill – the DMV and PUC both stated they believe that more local ordinances will lead to more regulatory costs for them. It also addresses concerns about a “patchwork” of regulations. Allowing the biggest cities to set the standard, and allowing their bordering cities to copy their ordinances, balances regional consistency with local control. 

Regarding impacts on transit agencies, the proliferation of AV passenger services will likely compete with transit. It certainly still means more cars on the road. Additionally, congestion management is of local concern, particularly to transit agencies. We must consider what interactions between AVs and transit vehicles will look like. Part of the value of giving local governments control over AV services is their responsiveness to their own communities, including stakeholders such as transit agencies. Going to a state agency proceeding will likely be received differently from going to a city council meeting.

The bill stalled in the Assembly Transportation Committee, which felt that all local control should be stripped out of the bill. I firmly believe some level of local control is coming and that it is critical. Unenforced local traffic management could lead to AV on train accidents, obstructions, etc. We will pursue a new effort in January. 
Transit California: You serve as a member of the California Transportation Commission (CTC), which is responsible for programming and allocating funds for construction of passenger rail, transit and active transportation improvements. CTC is currently deeply engaged in the preparation of a Needs Assessment of the cost to operate, maintain, and provide for the necessary future growth of the state and local transportation system for the next 10 years (SB 1121).  How can transit partners make sure their voices are heard in this process?

Transit plays a big role in SB 1121 and our transit partners have already been deeply involved in the process, starting with the SB 1121 Interim Report. I would expect the CTC to continue to seek out input from transit agencies as it develops its final report, and I would encourage our transit partners to fully participate. CTC meetings are very accessible, allowing participation in person or via zoom.

I recommend that transit partners keep an eye on when upcoming CTC meetings are and look at the agendas to make sure they can plan to attend and be prepared to engage. They are also open to public comment on issues not on the agenda. Additionally, reviewing past meetings can be helpful to see how past conversations about these issues have gone.

Transit California: You held various leadership roles at MTC, including Chair, Vice Chair and Commissioner. During that time, you led the adoption of the first Plan Bay Area, a long-range plan updated every 4 years for the region’s housing, economy, transportation, and environment. How did you get a buy-in from so many stakeholders, and what are some of the enduring transit elements of the Plan that you are most proud of?

Efforts like Plan Bay Area require major outreach. The Bay Area is comprised of 101 cities and 9 counties. That means that the staff from the MPO can be almost overwhelmed trying to reach out to hundreds of councilmembers, county supervisors, and community stakeholders. It’s not just Plan Bay Area. Efforts around transit revenue, operator efficiency and Sustainable Communities Strategies all require major outreach efforts – or they will fail. 

Transit California: You served on the Board of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and secured major funding for the Bay Area Rapid Transit extension to the South Bay and light rail expansion in the region. What were some of the obstacles you faced for making these expansions, and what led to your success? 

I have been fortunate to have remained in office long enough to see several delayed projects come to fruition. Most rail and highway projects require major funding that takes time to assemble and protect. Projects like rail extensions often depend on local sales tax and other volatile funding sources. Projects need to survive politically as leadership turns over and opinions change during economic ups and downs. The projects closest to my heart, which are completed or underway today, survived multiple serious recessions. We fought back against the temptation to shelve projects during the tough times. Again, political personalities play a role in all of this. 

Transit California: You hail from local government, having served as a Santa Clara County Supervisor from 2008-2020. How does your longtime county-level experience inform what you set as your state transit priorities?

It has been a major influence on my approach to chairing the committee. Throughout my service in local government, I was always assigned to transportation agencies and major transportation efforts. I have had the opportunity to engage closely with stakeholders at every level, and these experiences have significantly informed my values as a Senator. Regarding state transit priorities, as a member of the Bay Area Caucus, I understand this region’s transit needs and want to ensure that our state government is responsive to those needs. I’ve learned much about the rest of the state, much of that learning coming from local officials who come to visit me in Sacramento.

Transit California: You are an experienced legislator in transit policy leadership.  How can transit agencies and transit partners best educate and advocate to the legislature and legislative staff?

Educating legislators and staff is critical to achieving legislative goals. The challenge is that every interest group understands this so it’s hard to get heard above all the competing messages. I would recommend reaching out to legislators in their districts, especially in the fall and early winter before the Legislature starts hearing bills.

It can also be helpful to keep track of when hearings are coming up. Looking at agendas can help them determine if any bills may impact them. I would recommend finding out if there are any existing support or opposition coalitions and keeping an eye on amendments. Even if you are not part of a large coalition, be sure to check in with committee consultants, especially from the two Transportation Committees. The committee staff write the bill analysis for every transportation bill. They will take into account your policy views, data and other information. 

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