In the Driver’s Seat

James Corless, new CEO of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, on transportation, housing and autonomous vehicles

Back Q&A Jun 29, 2017 By Rich Ehisen

James Corless has been called “a world-class visionary and leader” in transportation, land use and creative urban planning by Roseville Mayor Susan Rohan. He became CEO of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments in April, after serving as the founding director of Washington D.C.-based Transportation for America. We sat down with him to discus the future of the Capital Region. 

You’ve only been at the helm for a few months. What’s your vision for SACOG?

I think Sacramento is poised to punch above its weight, to use a lot of the assets it has to attract talent and to build a really competitive economy. A lot of that is transportation and just making sure people and goods can move from point A to point B. But it’s also the type of communities and neighborhoods that we build. It’s everything from airports and goods-movement down to building into people’s lifestyles — walking and biking and healthy options that are [also] transportation.

You’ve said mid-sized regions like Sacramento are in a good position to accomplish great things. In what way?

Given both our proximity to the Bay Area and the universities and colleges we have in our region, we could be an innovation economy. I look to Denver and Salt Lake City and Nashville — all state capitals that 15-20 years ago people did not really want to move to — and they’ve turned themselves around through a lot of civic leadership and infrastructure investment. I’m not going to say transportation is the key to everything, but Denver and Salt Lake made huge commitments to build out a modern transportation network because tech leaders from Silicon Valley said, ‘We’re not moving here until you clean up your air and give us much better transportation.’ Look at Denver: People want to move there for the mountains, for the great weather and for the sunshine. We have all that here in Sacramento, as well.

Lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed legislation to raise the gas tax and vehicle licensing fees to raise an estimated $52 billion over the next decade for roads and other infrastructure needs. What will that mean for projects in this region?

It’s good news in general. We’ve had a hard time in transportation basically getting consumers to pay for the system, so we subsidize all forms of transportation and we send really mixed signals to people about whether we want them to ride public transit or drive alone or drive in a carpool. What that package means is you’re going to run over fewer potholes, you’re going to be taking your car to the shop less, our light rail vehicles will look better and our aging bridges will be safer. So, that’s good but we’re playing catch up. The question now is how we actually finance the system in a long-term sustainable way. We don’t have many years left of being able to tax gasoline because we’re going to move to more efficient vehicles. That’s good for the earth, that’s good for the environment, but it’s actually a bad way to pay for modern infrastructure.

There are ways to redevelop our suburban corridors so they can get better bus service. What we’ve got to do is work with developers to make riding transit as easy as falling out of bed.

How is Sacramento doing in terms of transit-oriented development?

We’re behind the curve on the type of development where you can just walk out your door and jump onto a bus or a train. The good news is we just had our signature transit-oriented development project in the Golden 1 Center. That is the prime example of how you actually build the type of region that makes it easy for people to get places. If you think of that as an employment destination, that’s exactly the kind of thing we should be doing. But we also have suburban corridors all over this region that are crying out for investment and revitalization. The face of retail is changing quickly. We’re going to start losing retail and strip malls, and in their place ought to come something unique to Sacramento. It could be mixed-used housing with maybe a little bit of retail and maybe schools. There are ways to redevelop our suburban corridors so they can get better bus service. What we’ve got to do is work with developers to make riding transit as easy as falling out of bed. If you sign up for a new apartment building, part of your welcome packet ought to be a transit pass, a bike share membership and a Zipcar for six months. We should make these things as easy as possible for people when they move into any kind of apartment or condominium complex.

California has a significant housing shortage, which is a major factor in the state’s worst-in-the-nation poverty rate. How do we make the kinds of neighborhoods we desire affordable?

The first thing we have to recognize is we are under-supplying housing as a state and as a region. One of the challenges here in the Sacramento region is whether we can revitalize our suburbs. Can we put mixed-use development in our older suburban corridors? Can we put that housing into small towns and infuse those economies and give people those kinds of options? This is especially true as millennials begin to age. As their income goes up and they look to raise families, they’re not all going to live in downtown Sacramento. We’re going to have to build more walkable suburbs.

Some cities now have programs that link ridesharing services with mass transit, or in some cases even subsidize transit riders to take Uber or Lyft. How would something like that work in Sacramento?

In my former job, we worked with 16 cities around the country to pilot test these ideas. One was in Centennial, Colo., a congested suburb just outside Denver with a parallel light rail where the parking lot was full by 7 a.m. They had a once-an-hour bus that nobody used. It cost a lot of money and it just didn’t work on people’s schedules. So the City said, ‘We’re going to take the same amount of money we spent on the bus and we’re going to entirely subsidize the cost of Lyft to the light rail station.’ There is an integrated app called Go Denver that people can use to buy a light rail ticket and order Lyft all in one. I can see this working in a lot of our communities that have access to light rail. For the commuter trying to get to the light rail station, or even for an elderly person who is trying to get to the health care appointment, this is a transformational technology. Now all of our mass transits in the U.S. are going to have to fundamentally rethink the type of service they offer. … Buses and trains are still going to have a real role to play, but in those really low-ridership routes we’re going to have to really rethink whether running a 40-passenger bus is appropriate when we could actually run a Lyft or a shuttle.

Sacramento is pushing to become a test city for autonomous vehicles. What does this technology mean for the city?

It’s a huge game changer. … I think it is just a couple of years before we really begin to see autonomous vehicles in a bigger way roaming our streets, which could be really good for Sacramento. It could also be chaotic, so this is where we have to get the rules of the game set. We have to really work with our private sector partners so we are not overwhelmed by robot cars running around neighborhoods with nobody in them. That’s the bad scenario. Say I go to a Kings game in five years and I don’t want to pay the exorbitant parking charge at the Golden 1 Center. I could just run my autonomous vehicle through all the neighborhoods and have it come pick me up three hours later — we don’t want that to happen. We might want that autonomous vehicle to run through a bunch of neighborhoods, but we want it picking up people — we want it actually doing work. I definitely want us to be a leader in testing autonomous, but I also want us to be a leader in deploying autonomous vehicles so they are giving the most mobility to the most number of people at the least cost and the least environmental impact. 

How do you think the Capital Region is doing in terms of transit-oriented development? Tweet us @Comstocksmag


Ray Valone (not verified)July 10, 2017 - 3:01pm

I think we're going to have to do much better with moving people around without private vehicles, as Mr. Corless states in the article. I worked as an urban planner for the Metro Regional Govt in Portland, OR for several years and know that it takes a great commitment on the part of the govts in an area to achieve big strides in providing viable options for people to get around. I hope Sacramento has and shows this commitment, and supports it with their pocketbooks and willingness to change.