April 5, 2017
By The Editorial Board
Here’s a challenge: Try to find anyone who doesn’t agree that California’s roads are in awful shape.
How bad? California leads the nation in substandard bridges and is near the bottom in eight of 11 categories in a recent ranking by the Reason Foundation. The future isn’t any brighter. There’s a $130 billion gap between maintenance needs for state highways and local roads over the next 10 years and projected revenue for infrastructure repair. This winter’s storm damage alone added up to almost $900 million, more than triple what was set aside in the state budget for emergency repairs.
Without a significant infusion of cash, California’s roads will keep getting worse and the already staggering tab for repairs will grow even larger.
That money ought to come from road users.
A bill awaiting final legislative approval would raise about $52 billion over 10 years, with two-thirds of the revenue earmarked for road repairs. The rest would go to public transit, easing congestion around major ports and building bicycle and pedestrian paths.
To pay for it all, the tax on gasoline would increase by 12 cents a gallon to 30 cents, and the tax on diesel would go up 20 cents a gallon to 36 cents. The sales tax on diesel also would increase. Vehicle owners would pay a new, sliding scale registration fee based on the value of the car or truck, and owners of electric vehicles would pay a $100 a year fee in lieu of fuel taxes.
On average, motorists would pay an additional $150 a year.
“This is a heavy lift,” Gov. Jerry Brown conceded at a news conference last week in Concord. “This is not eating cotton candy. This is real spinach. This is broccoli.”
Brown probably didn’t endear himself to vegetable farmers or mothers of young children with his analogy. But the people he needs to persuade are state legislators, who have ignored the deteriorating state of California’s infrastructure for far too long.
Roads are the quintessential user-funded public program. Taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel built the interstate highway system and California’s state and local transportation networks. The same taxes are supposed to pay for upkeep, maintenance and expansion to meet added demand.
Political sclerosis in Washington has blocked efforts to raise needed money for federal highways. The story is the same in California, where the state gas tax hasn’t increased in more than two decades. In the meantime, inflation has driven up the cost of road construction, and fuel consumption has been declining for a variety of reasons, beginning with improved fuel efficiency.
The arithmetic can’t be denied any more than the condition of California’s roads, but tax-averse politicians have been stuck in neutral for years.
Brown wants legislators to deliver the transportation funding bill before they adjourn Thursday for their spring vacation, but he needs to round up a few more votes to meet the two-thirds majority required to raise taxes. “I think this is fundamental and basic to government,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday. “You can’t get away from the fact that our roads are getting worse, and they aren’t going to get better without a huge injection of money.”
He’s right. This package isn’t perfect. If it were up to us, more of the money would be dedicated to roads, but more delays could scuttle the deal. Again. It’s time for legislators to eat their spinach — and for all of us to chip in a little more to fix the state’s roads.