April 1, 2017
By The Editorial Board
Gov. Brown’s package of tax hikes to fund road repairs is tough medicine to take, but we might just have to take it, at least in part.
We certainly can’t let California’s freeways, roads and bridges become even more run-down or unsafe. Something must be done, but it must be done in a prudent fashion.
Brown and Democratic legislative leaders have proposed $5.2 billion a year in additional gas taxes and car fees to fix the state’s lackluster roads. Over the next decade, $15 billion would go to local road repairs, and the same amount to state highway repairs, plus $4 billion for bridge and culverts, $5.5 billion to improve trade corridors and major commuting corridors, and $7.5 billion to improve local public transportation.
The proposal would increase the base excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents per gallon, from 18 cents to 30 cents. A separate price-based excise tax on gasoline would rise from 11.8 cents to 17.23 cents and would be indexed to inflation to rise in future years. A new fee on vehicles would average $48 per year, based on the value of the car. Drivers of electric cars would pay an annual $100 fee.
That’s a steep price for drivers and truckers. But, here’s the thing: It’s been 23 years since gas taxes were raised, and if the tax had been indexed to inflation, it would be higher now than the governor’s proposal will make it. Inflation and more efficient cars have meant that money for road maintenance has fallen far behind the deterioration of our roadways, and we see — and feel — the results every time we drive. The administration claims each California driver now spends about $700 a year in vehicle repairs caused by rough roads.
The package includes a constitutional amendment to be passed by voters to require that all the money is spent as promised. That’s a nod to the fact that Sacramento has for years diverted transportation tax revenue, including truck weight fees, to other purposes. This proposal includes $706 million in loan repayments from the General Fund. There would also be an inspector general to ensure that Caltrans and other agencies use the money efficiently.
Those steps are good, but we need to see another: The Legislature must put a 10-year sunset on the whole package of taxes. Any such taxes should be reviewed periodically, and quick advancements in transportation technology make it even more important in this case. Hyperloop, self-driving cars and other innovations are on the horizon.
Of course, we’d like to see Brown forced to give up his high-speed rail plan and divert the money to real transportation needs. That would make this package a win for everyone.
These tax hikes are essentially user fees, and that’s better than the typical approach to taxes in the state. And paying as we go is better than borrowing.
Of course, there are serious downsides, too.
Drivers’ pocketbooks will be hit, especially poorer drivers with long commutes. Higher diesel prices will be passed along to consumers.
Politically, we’re irked that state leaders have ignored this basic need so very long while spending our taxes on less vital priorities. We can point to all kinds of bad spending decisions through the years at the state level, but that doesn’t make our roads any smoother.
If we let our roads and highways keep deteriorating, our economy eventually will fall into a sinkhole.
Undoubtedly, state taxes are too high, but we need our transportation infrastructure fixed. The governor and his party ought to show good faith and find ways to reduce taxes and spending in other areas of government and prioritize the budget (which is at or near all-time highs) without consistently going back to the public for more money.
Unfortunately, this is a case where we have to swallow hard and pay for the time that’s been lost and the money that’s been spent elsewhere. If voters do not like it, they should vote accordingly during election season.