Filling car-shaking potholes and repairing crumbling highways and bridges shouldn’t be a partisan issue, Gov. Jerry Brown said Wednesday.
Joined by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, Brown used a news conference at the Port of Oakland to urge the Legislature’s Republicans andDemocrats to work together in a special session he called to find a long-term answer to California’s continuing lack of cash for highway and infrastructure repairs.
“Nothing could be more obvious than roads full of potholes, than congestion that you sit through for hours,” the governor said, arguing that efficient transportation is key to the state’s economic prosperity.
But California’s current gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1994, only brings in $2.3 billion a year for repair work, billions short of what state officials say is needed. Compounded over the years, that’s left tens of billions of dollars in deferred maintenance, Brown said.
The gap is only going to get worse. As fuel efficiency increases and more electric and hybrid cars hit the road, gas sales will drop and tax revenue will fall with them.
While just about everyone in the state agrees there’s a desperate need to repair and improve California highways, the fight is over the best way to get there.
“It won’t be easy,” Atkins told The Chronicle on Wednesday morning. “It will be a bumpy road, but our constituents expect us to work together and figure something out.”
Despite the Democrats’ overwhelming majorities in both the Assembly and state Senate, they’re short of the two-thirds needed to pass a transportation bill out of the special session, which ends next month. They need a few Republican votes to get anything done, and the minority party has very different ideas of how to raise the estimated $6 billion a year it will take to cover the state’s unmet highway needs.
A proposal by Assembly Republicans, unveiled earlier this year, would raise more than $6 billion a year by eliminating thousands of state employees and unfilled positions and reallocating existing state money, both from the budget and from other projects.
The plan would enable the state “to repair our roadways, ease traffic gridlock and create jobs — without raising taxes,” Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen of Modesto, the GOP Assembly leader, said at the time.
A bill by Democratic state Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose, on the other hand, would bring in about $4.6 billion a year by boosting the gas tax by 2 cents a gallon, adding a dime to the tax on diesel fuel, charging a new annual road access charge of $35 a vehicle and increasing the current $43 registration fee to $78, plus an additional $100 for zero-emission vehicles, which don’t burn gas — or pay the state gas tax.
In early discussions, Republicans have vocally opposed any new taxes or fee increases, while Democrats are outraged at things like the GOP’s call to take 40 percent of the state’s cap-and-trade funds, designed to offset greenhouse gas emissions, and use that $1 billion-plus for highway construction and repair.
Finding a middle ground “is going to take the active art of political negotiation,” Atkins said.
There are a few points Republicans and Democrats agree on. Any plan should be “pay as you go,” with neither side interested in a one-time fix, such as a bond measure that would pile more debt on the state. Any money raised must be earmarked only for road and infrastructure repair, and protected against being siphoned into other parts of the state budget. And Californians — and legislators — should be told exactly how and where the money will be spent, with regular updates on how efficiently that’s happening.
“I can tell people that (over 10 years) we can raise the percentage of (up-to-date) roads from 59 percent to 90 percent,” Brian Kelly, head of the California State Transportation Agency, told The Chronicle. “We can fix a couple of hundred distressed bridges” and repair many of the 26,000 highway culverts that need work in the state.
The Legislature is going to have to do its work without Brown’s direct involvement, at least for now. The governor was purposely vague on how he wanted to close the dollar gap for road and highway repair.
“I’m not going to say where the revenue is going to come from or how we’re going to get it,” he said.
But Brown, in his record fourth term in office, stressed that transportation funding hasn’t always been a Democratic cause.
“Back in 1982, it was the Republicans that were hammering me to raise the gas tax,” he said. “I kept saying, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’”
Times have changed, the governor admitted.
“I understand where the Republicans are coming from,” Brown said. “But the potholes don’t wait. The congestion doesn’t wait.”
The clock is running on the transportation talks. The legislative session ends Sept. 11, which is the final day any bills can be approved.
For Guardino, and the hundreds of businesses in his Silicon Valley organization, the highway improvements are something that has to be done to keep the state’s economy moving, and politicians — Democrats and Republicans both — need to find a way to make it happen.
“We’re fighting over crumbs rather than growing the pie,” he said. “We’re hearing, ‘Fix this and we’re willing to pay.’”