One man spins his wheels trying to bring an unsuccessful transportation program to light
Local business owner and activist Paul McGrath unrolls a scrolled piece of paper onto the ground, revealing a gray and white bar graph, 18 feet long. The chart on white paper has two bars, one that goes on for several yards, and another less than an inch long.
It’s dramatic, but it shows the disparity between the projected figure for a transportation program’s driving reductions (the long bar) and the actual reduction in vehicle miles traveled (the shorter one).
“I’ve been trying to bring attention to this because something is seriously wrong,” says McGrath, a sustainable transportation advocate.
The Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) received a $120,000 grant in 2008 from the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District, also called the air district, to add a carpool incentive program to its existing Commuter Solutions initiative. The incentive program was experimental, and the air district hoped that, once the RTC worked out the kinks, it would serve as a model for the rest of the region to replicate in the future.
In its grant proposal, the RTC projected that the incentive program, Cash for Carpools, would reduce the amount of vehicle miles traveled in the county by approximately 8.2 million in two years. The actual reduction of miles traveled when the program ended in December 2013 was 21,000, according to the RTC—less than a quarter of a percent of its goal.
“What they claimed they were going to achieve was massively exaggerated,” says McGrath, whose company RideSpring competed with the RTC for the same grant. “It was completely unrealistic.”
McGrath has vocalized—and sometimes yelled—his concerns about what he considers a fraudulent grant application for an unsuccessful program at various RTC and air district meetings. In boisterous presentations, he has often refused to end his rants at the end of the three-minute speaking window. RTC commissioners called for a recess and walked out on McGrath on one occasion, and has had security personnel escort him out at others, as they did on June 26, when McGrath attempted to present his 18-foot graph.
“I have been kicked out of some of them,” says McGrath. “I am angry about this, and I’m angry because I see an agency whose job it is to implement effective traffic pollution reductions taking steps to prevent that from happening.”
McGrath, an engineer hailing from the United Kingdom, launched RideSpring, in 2004. The company provides businesses with an incentive program that encourages its employees to carpool, walk, bus, or bike to work, using gift cards to local businesses as the incentive.
RideSpring clients have included both public entities such as the City of Santa Cruz, and private companies like Gap. In 2008, McGrath hoped to add Cabrillo College to that client list. After RideSpring provided the community college with a free, six-month trial, the institution applied for grant funding to pay for and continue RideSpring’s services.
Unfortunately for McGrath and the college, the RTC had applied for the same Assembly Bill 2766 grant, which is derived from a $4 vehicle registration fee to fund clean-air projects, and is distributed by the air district. The air district awarded the grant to the RTC for its proposed rideshare program, effectively ending RideSpring’s work with Cabrillo. But McGrath says losing a client is not the primary reason for his tireless campaign.
“I definitely wanted to sell Cabrillo,” says McGrath. “But at the same time, it was overwhelming to me that the system was broken, and my main focus now is the actions of the RTC.”
The RTC spent more than a year developing the Cash for Carpools program and a website, before officially launching in June 2010. But the program was fraught with problems, according to Karena Pushnik, senior transportation planner at the RTC.
In an emailed statement to GT, Pushnik says the air district’s strict data-gathering requirements for the program served as a hindrance to participants. The company which provided the initial data tracking system for the website stopped doing so, and Pushnik states the method the RTC ultimately employed was not user-friendly. She also points out that the incentives provided to the participants in the RTC’s program were not enough to overcome the burden of the data-gathering required.
In 2012, McGrath composed a report stating the RTC was wasting public funds, and sent it to public officials, but never received a response. He continued to bring the issue to meetings and public hearings even after January 2014, when the air district, seeing the lack of results, terminated the AB 2766 funding a month before the grant expired.
In the end, the RTC used $33,736 of the $120,000 grant, and the unspent money went back into the air district’s grant pool. The RTC spent an additional $27,684 on the project, which it did not bill to the air district. Overall, more than $60,000 was spent on a pilot program that produced less than 1 percent of its projected results, and no longer exists.
So, where are the other transportation activists rushing to support McGrath?
Several sustainable transportation advocates who once supported McGrath, have distanced themselves in recent years and were unwilling to speak to GT about his efforts. Some blame McGrath’s outspoken criticism of the RTC and what they call questionable methods. Last April Fool’s Day, for instance, McGrath fabricated an apology letter to Cabrillo College from RTC executive director George Dondero, using the RTC letterhead and Dondero’s forged signature.
Although Cash for Carpools is now defunct, McGrath remains focused on bringing the program to light because he perceives it as an indicator of an enduring, cyclical problem.
“I see this not just as an isolated project, but a long term chronic problem,” says McGrath. “This program was supposed to be a fix of the old program, and I see this cycle of programs that fail and need more money. This is just the latest in a decades-long problem.”