Opinion

Repairing California’s bumpy roads

Downtown Los Angeles, as traffic zips along. (Photo: Sean Pavone)

Six months after Gov. Jerry Brown called for a special session of the Legislature to fix the state’s crumbling roads, the potholes are just as deep, the motorists are just as irritated and the multibillion-dollar cost is just as high.

There are a lot of discussions going on behind the scenes,” said Jim Earp of the Alliance for Jobs, which represents builders and workers, part of a coalition that includes cities and counties pushing for road improvements with, at a bare minimum, a $6 billion annual price tag.

But it’s not as if everybody is sitting around a big table staring at each other. A lot of individual conversations are going on. We had hoped to queue something up before the end of the month for January,” although it was uncertain whether that goal can be met, he added.

Lawmakers want to act on the issue. 

The negotiators are reporting back that legislators in both parties think something needs to be done,” said Chris McKenzie of the League of California Cities, also part of the coalition.

By one Capitol estimate, state roads and local roads need some $14 billion annually in maintenance and upgrades. The price tag for new construction and with the federal roads thrown is ten-fold larger.

The goal is to offer a package in 2016 to improve the worst of the state’s 50,000 miles of state-run roads and 13,000 bridges, and provide new capacity in freight-clogged zones and provide a regular source of funding over time. 

The sticking point – not surprisingly – is money, since any combination of new taxes and fees will require bipartisan support in the Legislature to achieve two-thirds majority votes. Another difficulty: There is concern among environmentalists about tapping large amounts of money from cap-and-trade auctions and diverting it to highway infrastructure.

Gov. Brown said recently in Paris after the international climate change talks that he was considering going to next year’s ballot – a presidential election year — for infrastructure funding, but how much and for what purpose was left hanging. 

His comment caught negotiators in Sacramento by surprise.

Going to the ballot has been ruled out,” one had said, just two days earlier. They are concerned that any measure would get lost in next year’s ballot, which is likely to be crowded with propositions. Instead, they would prefer to get a bill through the Legislature with bipartisan agreement and to the governor’s desk.

There are other uncertainties, including legislative leadership changes since the earliest drafts of the transportation bill.

By one Capitol estimate, state roads and local roads need some $14 billion annually in maintenance and upgrades, and fall short of that amount by nearly $8 billion. The price tag for new construction and with the federal roads thrown is ten-fold larger.

Estimates vary wildly, but the numbers are daunting: Caltrans has a $59 billion backlog of deferred road maintenance, and an annual shortage of about $5.7 billion in its highway operations and protection program, according to statistics compiled by road improvement advocates. More than two-thirds of California roads are congested, more than half the local bridges need renovation or replacement, as do some 58 percent of state roads.  Of the five cities in the nation with the worst road conditions, four are in California.

The issue is nagging one: In 2013 California was ranked 47th among the 50 states for the efficiency and performance of its roads, according to a University of North Carolina study. Last year, California was 45th, according to the Reason Foundation. During the past 15 years, it has ranked consistently in the bottom 10.

The bill would cost the average driver about $130 a year, based on a calculation of a motorist who drives 12,000 miles annually in a vehicle that gets 24 miles per gallon.

But will the Legislature and governor come up with the money? Would the voters?

We’re hopeful,” said DeAnn Baker, who represents the California State Association of Counties. “That $14 billion to maintain the state and local systems is a big number. We’ve got an $8 billion-a-year shortfall.” The coalition is “hoping to get some kind of revenue increase to address the shortfall,” she said.

On the table is the governor’s proposal of $3.6 billion. Road improvement advocates, led by the builders and local governments, seek at least $6 billion a year, or more.

A base line for the negotiations is a $4.3 billion special-session bill authored by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose.

There about 25 million licensed automobiles in California, and another five million licensed pickups, trucks and vehicles for hire.

To raise money, his bill, SBx1 1, would cost the average driver about $130 a year, based on a calculation of a motorist who drives 12,000 miles annually in a vehicle that gets 24 miles per gallon, reflecting a proposed 12-cents-per-gallon increase in state fees and taxes that currently total 30 cents.

By comparison, the decline in gas prices from the 2014 high of $4.25 per gallon to the current average of $3.25 per gallon saves drivers about $500 annually if the current level remains the same, according to a Senate consultant.

There are about 25 million licensed automobiles in California, and another five million licensed pickups, trucks and vehicles for hire.

The key issues that have emerged thus far in the negotiations include:

–A commitment that money destined for road improvements be put in a “lockbox” and not diverted to other projects. “They want some kind of constitutional protection that the money won’t be borrowed or taken,” one lawmaker said.

–A requirement that fuel taxes be “indexed,” meaning that they can be increased every three years to account for changes in the cost of living. The goal of indexing is to avoid long periods when the fuel revenues stay flat, while needed maintenance and renovation lack for funding. The increased use of fuel-efficient cars, which use less gas but operate on the same roads, also plays into the calculation.

–Establishing a program that will be effectively funded over a period of years from sources other than the state’s general fund.

–A combination of fees and taxes to provide money, including some mix of the Vehicle License Fee, transportation weight fees, registration fees, fuel levies, excise taxes and money from the state’s cap-and-trade auctions.

–Improving high-traffic roads in freight-clogged areas, with a plan to add new capacity.

What it really comes down to is do we have the votes to get the taxes and fees? It would have to be an overall package that people that people on both sides of the aisle can support,” Beall said. Democrats control both houses, but will need Republican votes to raise taxes.

A provision of his bill sets aside 5 percent of the funds generated to counties if they pass new local sales and use taxes for transportation.

The California Taxpayers Association, although favoring transportation improvements, described that provision as a “get rich quick approach over sound policy by enticing county governments to approve new taxes.” The bulk of the funds would be split 50-50 between the state and the locals

Lawmakers say they often here from constituents complaining about the quality and capacity of the roads.

But it’s not that this unhappiness is anything new. Here’s a description of California’s highways from two decades ago from a state panel that investigated them.

For many Californians … Hell feels like reality as they face the daily frustrations of the State’s inadequate freeways and highways,” wrote Nathan Shapell, then head of the Little Hoover Commission. Shapell’s comments were contained in a 1992 official letter to Gov. Pete Wilson and legislative leaders accompanying a commission report that was sharply critical of the state’s transportation planning and construction.


  • Laurence B. Goodhue

    While the need is certainly there–the problem will never be solved–until the unchecked
    CORRUPTION is eviscerated—absent that the $$ will just be urinated way thru dubious
    sweet hearts deals—such as those pushing Long Beach closer and closer to bankruptcy-
    particularly with its dubious Civic Center project–which is molded after the recently
    completed State Court Hous (in LB)e–that nearly BANKRUPTED THE California Court
    system—and will well before the morrow is over-do the same to Long Beach.
    (Check LB Report.com-fo credible r details re the pending $$$ crises!!!!

    • Claude

      Who was it who calculated the cost of eliminating waste and fraud to be about $2 for every $1 saved?

      Most of the large scale waste and fraud has already been controlled through the current accountability measures. Most of the waste and fraud left in the system is projects that the person complaining doesn’t like, while those on the other side declare the first person’s favorite projects equally wasteful and fraudulent.
      The real problem is the practice of building expensive infrastructure without a long term means of funding the maintenance and eventual repairs.

  • Dave Imrett

    There is always a post that goes “All we have to do is get rid of the wasteful spending and use it where is really needed and things will be fine.” The problem is this is a very large state with a very large number of diverse interests. As a result the government that represents a large diverse state is itself large and diverse with many diverse goals and missions. What one person calls ‘waste’ another person calls ‘essential’ and vice versa. With this kind of thinking we can never fix the problem because, no matter what is done there will always be ‘waste’. We cannot hold the money needed to fix a very grave problem hostage to one individuals or even one interest groups definition of ‘waste’. Because there will always be ‘waste’ so long as more than one person’s view is represented in the actions of government.
    Nobody wants to pay higher taxes. Nobody wants to pay to fix their roof. We all have things we would rather use the money for. But when the roof leaks, you have to fix it. If you don’t the damage will just get worse and more expensive to fix. Roads and bridges are the same way. Nobody really wants to pay for them, but we all are responsible to pay for them. We have been letting maintenance go (don’t even get started on improvements) for decades and the cost is mounting up at a frightening pace.
    Even if you think that there are places that government is ‘wasting’ money, it is still time to fix the roof.

    • hcat

      The “waste” such as excessive pensions and all that, is not, fat, it is a cancer. And you don’t deal with a cancer by going on a diet.

  • Len_Conly

    This could make “cap and trade” into a real charade.
    “There is concern among environmentalists about tapping large amounts of money from cap-and-trade auctions and diverting it to highway infrastructure.”

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