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California’s bumpy path to road repairs

A mid-1930s truck on a Kern County highway. (Photo: Joseph Sohm, Shutterstock)

California’s already poor roads deteriorated to a whole new level of disrepair this winter. Sinkholes have popped up throughout the state and major roads have closed because of damage.

To cite just a few major examples: Portions of Interstate 80 and Highways 50 and 49 were closed due to mudslides. Parts of Highway 1 remain closed because of storm damage. Numerous local roads were battered severely.

Advocates say there is a backlog of $130 billion in needed repairs — $58 billion for state highways and $73 billion for local streets and roads.

As Californians suffer through crumbling highways from severe winter storms, the governor and legislators are aiming to approve a transportation funding package by April 6 that will start to repair the damage.

Some say it’s about time.

“If we fail to invest today, we will pay far more deeply in the future,” said San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who is part of a group called Fix Our Roads. “The cost of doing nothing is far, far greater than the cost of investing in maintenance.”

Democrats are proposing plans that include gas tax and vehicle registration fee hikes. Republicans would instead repay transportation funds, including vehicle weight fees, that have been sent to the general fund.

According to Fix Our Roads, a coalition of local governments and businesses that support the tax and fee hikes, there is a backlog of $130 billion in needed repairs — $58 billion for state highways and $73 billion for local streets and roads.

Republican State Sen. Ted Gaines of El Dorado Hills said the state should prioritize funding for road repair over other government costs, instead of increasing taxes.

“I resent the fact that (tax increases) are always the solution,” he said. “They can’t fee you or tax you enough to get the services they need.”

Mark Watts of the advocacy group Transportation California said he doesn’t think it’s realistic for the state to find enough transportation dollars from the general fund.

He pointed to a Legislative Analyst’s Office report that said the California Department of Transportation is overstaffed by 3,500 people, wasting $500 million every year.

It hasn’t helped improve roads that the state’s excise tax of 18 cents per gallon has not been raised in 24 years. Revenue has remained flat because of more fuel-efficient cars and electric cars on the road. So even though there are more cars on the road, drivers are using less gas and less tax money is available.

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to increase transportation funding an annual average of $4.2 billion over the next 10 years. He would increase the gas excise tax by 11.7 cents per gallon and the diesel excise tax by 11 cents per gallon. His plan would also impose a new $65 vehicle registration fee.

Senate Bill 1, authored by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, would generate an estimated $6 billion annually for roads. It would increase the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon over three years, increase the diesel excise tax by 20 cents and increase vehicle registration fees by $38. Zero-emission vehicles would have to pay $100 toward road maintenance and repair.

“We don’t want to get on the roller coaster of the state general fund.” — Chris Lee

“This is a first step toward making our roads safer, improving our quality of life and giving a much-needed boost to our economy,” said Beall in a press statement. “With much of our roads and bridge infrastructure past its expected lifespan, rehab and maintenance costs for both the state system and local streets and roads are skyrocketing.”

Mark Watts of the advocacy group Transportation California said he doesn’t think it’s realistic for the state to find enough transportation dollars from the general fund. There are too many competing interests looking or that money and it would be hard to keep the focus on preserving money for transportation, he said.

Chris Lee, legislative analyst for California State Association of Counties, agreed. “Our board feels pretty strongly that the proper way to pay for the system is where users pay for it,” he said. “We don’t want to get on the roller coaster of the state general fund.”

Emily Cohen, executive vice president of United Contractors, a union-affiliated contractors association, said her group supports Senate Bill 1 because it comes with accountability measures that will protect the investment for transportation. “The money is lock boxed,” she said. “It’s transparent. It would have independent oversight.”

SB 1 would establish the independent Office of Transportation Inspector General to perform audits.

It’s difficult to find anybody that doesn’t agree that California’s roads are in crisis. A 2015 report from TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit transportation research group found that four out of five of the nation’s metro areas with the worst roads were in California: San Francisco-Oakland, Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Concord and San Jose.

On a scale of 0 to 100 with 0 being failing, the statewide average Pavement Condition Index is 66.

“Infrastructure is a core function of government,” Cohen said. “The Legislature has failed to fulfill this primary and core function of their duties. It’s pretty horrifying.”


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