Two large, long-planned projects expected to ease congested highway interchanges in Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo are inching closer to construction thanks to funding recently approved by the county's regional transportation planning agency board.
In addition, dozens of other local transportation projects are moving ahead throughout San Luis Obispo County. Other efforts are underway to speed up the flow of traffic by improving bike lanes, adding or expanding park-and-ride lots, promoting carpooling, and purchasing two new buses for regional routes.
The San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, which funnels state and federal money to local projects, on Dec. 4 conceptually approved $28.9 million for use in about 48 road, bike and pedestrian, and public transportation projects.
Most of the projects will come back to the board at its next meeting for final approval.
The board's latest funding cycle shows a shift in transportation funding: fewer state and federal funds are available for the work, and cities are spending much more of their own cash — some of it raised through local sales tax measures — than in past years.
"This funding sounds like a lot of money, but the money is diminishing as we speak," executive director Ron De Carli said. "Especially for the highway-related improvements."
De Carli said transportation funding largely comes from the gasoline tax. As the price of gasoline goes up, consumption goes down. That, coupled with an increase in fuel-efficient and hybrid vehicles, has decreased revenues.
For example, from 1998 to 2000, the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments received about $15 million each year for highway-related projects, which was then matched with $15 million from Caltrans, De Carli said. At the time, an interchange project was estimated to cost $15 million to $20 million.
"Now," he added, "we get $6.5 million a year and Caltrans no longer has money to match. We have a 75 percent reduction and, at the same time, the cost of interchanges has gone from $15 million to $30 to $40 million."
As a result, the burden has shifted to local governments to come up with a much larger share of the funding. Many cities have used revenues from local sales tax measures, which have been passed in each of the county's seven cities except Atascadero.
Unlike neighboring Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo County does not have a regional sales tax, which would have to be passed by two-thirds of registered voters.
"The growth in the system that's happened is all being paid by locals," De Carli said. "This is a paradigm shift."
Meanwhile, the council of governments has continued to push money toward local projects that the agency board has determined meet its long-range vision for the county.
"Something we've been advocating is looking at overall efficiency and effectiveness and making sure the whole system works together," De Carli said.
One part of that is making sure roads are built for all users — vehicles as well as bicycles and pedestrians. Agency staff is also brainstorming ways to alleviate traffic congestion during rush hour, such as getting more people to car pool or suggesting larger employers allow employees to stagger their start times.
A look at some transportation projects
* Widen the Los Osos Valley Road overcrossing at Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo to four lanes and improve northbound on- and off-ramps. Construction expected to start in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
* Improve the Brisco Road interchange at Highway 101 in Arroyo Grande. Project will improve northbound Brisco Road and Grand Avenue ramps and upgrade intersections. Construction is expected to start in fiscal year 2016-17.
* Widen Price Canyon Road, which connects Edna Valley to Pismo Beach, to add 8-foot shoulders and a bike lane from Corral de Piedras to Ormonde Road. Construction expected to start in fiscal year 2014-15.