San Diego Union Tribune Editorial: Brown’s Gas-Tax Win Shows Needed Sanity On Roads

April 7, 2017
By The Editorial Board

The Legislature’s rapid approval of gas and fee hikes this week to fund a $52 billion, 10-year program to fix roads, highways and bridges was a welcome sign that Sacramento is capable of decisive action, at least when Democrats have supermajorities of both the Assembly and Senate. California’s roads and highways are in poor shape — a problem that isn’t just a hassle for individual drivers but a dire drag on the state’s economy. That’s why the California Chamber of Commerce worked closely with Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders in pushing the plan, confident in its provisions guaranteeing that the new revenue can’t be diverted to other needs.

Yes, there are reasons to grouse about the deal. One of the reasons for the scope of the state’s problem is the dirty trick pulled by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature in 2011 when they used a scheme to divert nearly $2 billion in gas taxes away from road maintenance, beginning that year and on an ongoing basis ever since — defying the intent of voters who passed two state ballot measures to try to block such diversions. The speed with which the legislation was rushed through is also far from ideal, given the Legislature’s history of making disastrous decisions on electricity deregulation and retroactive pension increases without sweating the details.

But perhaps it was rushed through for another reason: because the measure upon further scrutiny could have been seen as an act of heresy by powerful environmentalists. It amounts to an explicit long-term commitment to conventional modes of transportation powered far more often than not by fossil-fuel-emitting cars and trucks. Just $7 billion of the $52 billion will go to mass transit projects — less than 15 percent.

It’s instructive to compare Brown’s proposal with Measure A, the November ballot proposition sponsored by the San Diego Association of Governments that would have added a half-cent to sales taxes countywide to pay for $18.2 billion worth of transportation and infrastructure projects. According to a Voice of San Diego analysis, about 42 percent of the funding would have been used for public transit projects — triple the amount to be set aside for highway improvements. Yet Measure A was broadly condemned by local environmentalists for having too little for transit and too much for highways. The San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action wrote that SANDAG’s transit commitment was “regrettably inadequate.”

Measure A got 58 percent of the vote, but it needed two-thirds support to pass. Brown’s gas-tax plan got the two-thirds support it needed — even though it would be seen as an abomination under the standard greens used to judge Measure A.

The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board supports ambitious local and state efforts to reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. But environmentalists’ hostility to cars sometimes carries over to an irrational animus toward roads and freeways — even though there is no way to conceive of California functioning without them. This is why Brown’s artful shepherding of the gas tax to passage in our green Golden State could prove one of his finest achievements as governor.