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Participatory Budgeting Fans Say State DOT’s Embrace Is “Revolutionary”

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The largest state economy in the United States wants to make its transportation budgeting process more democratic. The California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans as it’s known, will soon award around $25 million in planning grants to regional and local transportation authorities, and it strongly urges that those authorities include participatory budgeting processes as part of their planning grant proposals.

The Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), a national nonprofit organization that promotes and supports participatory budgeting across the country, describes the process as “a way for residents of a community to make decisions through a structured process of direct democracy.”

“Caltrans’ decision to make these funds eligible for participatory budgeting is a revolutionary opportunity for civic engagement,” Shari Davis, director of strategic initiatives at PBP, said in a statement recognizing Caltrans’ decision to support participatory budgeting through its planning grants.

PBP, based in NYC, also has an office in Oakland, and its West Coast team will be made available to regional and local transportation authorities to provide education and training on how to run participatory budgeting processes, and provide technical support to those processes.

Earlier this year, PBP staff supported the city of Oakland in becoming the first in the nation to use participatory budgeting to provide direct input into its allocation of federal Community Development Block Grant funding. That process included budget assemblies and materials in five languages. One of the eligible uses for the Caltrans planning grants is paying for interpretation and translation services for meetings.

Applications to Caltrans for the $25 million in planning grants must include an explanation of how local residents and community-based organizations will be “meaningfully engaged in developing the final product,” especially those from disadvantaged and low-income communities, and how the final product will address community-identified needs. The application guidelines specify participatory budgeting as a best practice for meeting that requirement.

Using survey data from participatory budgeting processes across the nation, a report released last year showed the approach has success at reaching historically disenfranchised populations, including formerly incarcerated individuals.

Participatory budgeting got its start in Porto Alegre, Brazil. It soon spread to the U.S. and has been used from Chicago to New York City. In NYC’s sixth and most recent participatory budgeting cycle, 102,800 New Yorkers in 31 city council districts voted on $40 million in bricks and mortar spending in their respective districts. That’s 45 percent more voters than the previous participatory budgeting cycle in NYC.

Caltrans’ decision exposes a much larger potential pot of money to the model. The agency’s budget for 2017-2018 is nearly $12 billion.