California’s roads are crumbling, as every driver in the state well knows. Along stretches of Highway 99, to name one egregious example, the state of disrepair is downright Third World. The situation will not change without a significant infusion of funding.
Gov. Jerry Brown and California legislative leaders have proposed a plan that would do just that. But, naturally, it will cost us — to the tune of $52 billion over 10 years.
Under the plan, California drivers would pay higher fuel prices and new vehicle registration fees to finance repairs to the state’s roads and bridges and upgrades to public transportation systems.
Few California counties need more help than Kern County, where, according to the 2016 California Statewide Local Streets and Roads Needs Assessment, local roads received an “at risk” rating that fell just below the state’s overall score. A quarter of the cities in Kern County scored “poor.”
And Kern needs a whopping $3.8 billion over the next 10 years to get its streets and roads in “good” condition so they need only routine maintenance and not costly reconstruction, according to the state roads survey, issued every two years. Kern has only 21 percent of that.
But Californians already pay more in transportation taxes than residents of any other U.S. state. Where has that money gone? Gas tax money collected by state government in recent years has been diverted to uses other than road maintenance. The state’s 2008-2012 economic crisis necessitated those raids, and the legislature failed to repay the transportation fund when the economy improved.
Now California has a huge backlog of deferred road maintenance, and complaining about past decisions won’t help our vehicles’ worn shock absorbers. We need our roads fixed yesterday, and these proposed taxes would undoubtedly do it, quickly.
Even the tax-averse California Chamber of Commerce agrees: “Raising additional revenues for transportation will not be an easy vote when the time comes,” Chamber CEO Allan Zaremberg said in a statement, “but doing nothing will only ensure deterioration in the system necessary to move people and goods.”
But there’s a third way. Assemblyman Vince Fong of Bakersfield is a co-author of AB 496, dubbed the Traffic Relief and Road Improvement Act, and it proposes to pull off this daunting task without imposing new taxes. Many aspects of the bill make sense. For starters, it ensures money already paid by motorists actually goes toward transportation.
The plan dedicates $5.6 billion to transportation from taxes and fees that motorists are already paying and restores another $2.2 billion that was diverted to balance state budgets during the recession.
Will that be enough? It’s hard to see how it would be, but it’s a start.
The state’s Democratic supermajority would be wise to sit down with Fong and Assembly minority leader Chad Mayes and see where compromise might be possible — not only because taxpayers deserve it, but because they’d need virtually every Democratic vote in both houses to pull off their plan. An alternative that incorporates some of Fong’s ideas would help ensure the support of Democratic moderates.
Doing nothing is not an option, but protecting taxpayers’ pocketbooks has to be part of the solution.