The latest gasoline tax out of Sacramento, a levy of 5.6 cents per gallon set to take effect Monday, is fueling discussion locally over how to pay for road repairs, reduce traffic and otherwise improve the state's sprawling transportation infrastructure.
Kern County delegates to the state Legislature have slammed the tax as another misguided state policy raising consumers' transportation costs, with state Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, calling it a "morally wrong" tax on the people who can least afford it.
But is there a better way?
It's not as simple a question as it might seem. Consider that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, normally a dependably anti-tax voice, recently proposed raising the federal gas tax by 25 cents over the next five years as a way of shoring up the federal government's financially teetering Highway Trust Fund.
A complicating factor is that gas taxes produce diminishing returns. That's largely because increasing fuel efficiency and greater use of electric cars translate to less gas consumption per vehicle.
An option that has been discussed in recent years is a tax based on miles driven multiplied by vehicle weight, such that a tractor-trailer would pay more than a motorcycle traveling the same distance. Regardless, it'd still be a new tax likely to drive opposition.
NEED FOR FUNDING
A point on which no one disagrees is that something must be done to keep up a transportation system that constitutes a big if not the biggest public asset.
"Whether you call it a gas tax or you call it a user fee, we have to do something before some of our roads start turning to dirt," said Ahron Hakimi, executive director of the Kern Council of Governments, a regional authority that coordinates planning on transportation and other multijurisdictional matters.
The gas tax taking effect Monday results from the state Legislature's passage of Senate Bill 1 in 2017. It invests $5.4 billion during the next decade, with the largest share — $1.8 billion — funding maintenance and rehabilitation of the state highway system.
An additional $1.5 billion is being set aside to pay for repairs to local roads. SB 1 also sets aside money for work on bridges, culverts, pedestrian projects and bicycle infrastructure.
A public database posted online at http://rebuildingca.ca.gov/map.html lists hundreds of transportation projects in Kern County, some estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars, that are expected to be funded by SB 1.
The new tax was preceded, under the terms of SB 1, by an increase in vehicle registration fees ranging between $25 to $175, as well as an earlier tax that raised gasoline prices by 12 cents per gallon, and 20 cents for diesel, as of Nov. 1, 2017.
One particularly controversial aspect of the law is that it has no sunset date. Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, a vocal critic of SB 1, notes it will rise indefinitely, at the same rate as inflation, with no need for a vote of lawmakers or the public.
Fong contends the tax is unnecessary. In 2017, he authored an alternative — Assembly Bill 1866 — he says would have raised $5.6 billion for road repairs by diverting existing, transportation-related taxes and fees that were originally intended for that purpose but which have since been spent on other budget priorities.
He cited as an example California’s truck-weight fee of $1.1 billion per year that has been redirected away from funding only transportation projects and now puts money into the state's General Fund.
Although AB 1866 did not pass, Fong has kept attention on finding ways to pay for transportation infrastructure repairs without levying a new tax. He notes that transportation spending accounts for less than 4 percent of the state's more than $200 billion 2019 budget.
"We don't adequately prioritize transportation in California," he said.
Fong went on to note that about $1 of the price of gasoline in California, home to the nation's priciest vehicle fuel, comes from fees and regulations such as the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, the cap-and-trade system and changing fuel blends designed to reduce air pollution.
Grove was equally critical of the gas tax.
"California is the fourth-largest producer of crude oil in the country, yet our residents pay the most at the pump," she said in a written statement.
Hakimi, who characterized the gas tax more as a "temporary fix" than a long-term solution, said something's got to be done to preserve the infrastructure handed down by previous generations.
"To watch it deteriorate," he said, "is very frustrating to someone like me."