In a rebuke suggesting Assemblyman Ted Lempert is promoting pork barrel legislation, state Sen. Quentin Kopp last week announced he is shelving a bill that would force CalTrans to speed up the Devil's Slide tunnel project.
On Thursday, Kopp notified Lempert, both of whom represent parts of the Coastside, that he would not put Lempert's Assembly Bill 93 on the calendar of the Senate Committee on Transportation, effectively killing it. Kopp chairs the committee.
Lempert said Monday he had not yet spoken with Kopp about the matter and hopes to change his colleague's position.
AB 93 would require CalTrans to expedite design and project development of a tunnel, complete a cost estimate by July 1, and aggressively pursue federal funding. Lempert developed the bill because he believes the California Department of Transportation has handled the Devil's Slide issue poorly for years. The bill passed the Assembly on a vote of 72-1 on April 10. Kopp's committee was its first stop in the Senate.
But Kopp is refusing to bring the bill up for discussion, citing a 20-year-old policy by the Legislature not to consider bills that promote specific projects.
"I don't want to beat the kid up," the senator said Friday by telephone from Washington, D.C. where he was attending an annual trip by state legislators. But, he added, "We have a policy, and it's a longstanding policy based on logic."
In a letter to Lempert sent out just before he left for his trip, Kopp was more blunt, suggesting AB 93 amounts to " `pork barreling' or `log rolling' of highway projects."
"It is always easy to placate constituents at home by introducing a bill in favor of one's favorite projects, and it can generate some favorable press," Kopp stated. But, he added, "The end result of such unwise action would be that legislators with `clout' would receive funds for their projects and those without `clout' would not."
Lempert said his bill is necessary because of CalTrans' "abysmal" record on Devil's Slide. He denied AB 93 is a project-specific bill since it was amended to not alter the priorities of the state's existing traffic improvement plan.
He also said it would not create a precedent for other legislators seeking special treatment for their pet projects _ unless they happen to be long-delayed, federally funded emergency highway repairs in which CalTrans is not being responsive. If there are other such cases, Lempert believes it is the Legislature's duty to use "aggressive oversight" and its law-making power to keep CalTrans on its toes.
"It's an emergency-funded project where CalTrans has been dragging its feet, and there aren't many of those."
Both Democrats and Republicans alike supported the bill after Lempert pleaded its case in 30 one-on-one conferences with Assembly members.
"The Assembly would not have passed it . . . if it meant a project in their district would have been disadvantaged," he said.
It is not unheard of for the Legislature to show special attention to a specific development. Although it is not transportation-related, Kopp himself has a bill pending that seeks to single out a new stadium for the San Francisco Giants for faster-than-normal environmental review.
Since the passage of Measure T, the tunnel initiative mandating construction of a tunnel through San Pedro Mountain or the permanent repair of the existing alignment of Highway 1, both Kopp and Lempert have aggressively promoted the tunnel at the state level. Both said they would continue to work together to see the tunnel built. Kopp scheduled meetings with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and California's congressional delegation on the issue during his Washington, D.C. visit.
"The problem with CalTrans is not a covert desire to subvert the project," Kopp explained. "It's the innate bureaucratic culture." He said a letter-writing campaign, spearheaded by him personally and staff member Jaclyn Landsman, who used to work for the FHWA and knows the highway approvals process, has been effective in keeping CalTrans focused.
But Lempert remains unconvinced. He cited rapid repairs to Highway 50 following closures this past winter as evidence of the agency's usual response to an emergency.
"I would like to think they're treating this (Devil's Slide) project like every other emergency project," he said. "I have not seen the evidence of that."