Unprecedented highway money okayed — now what?

Motorists along the Ventura Freeway in Sherman Oaks. (Photo: Oscity, via Shutterstock)

A California transportation plan of historic proportions has been approved – but what happens next?

First, is the 12-cent increase in the fuel tax, starting in November. Then, other taxes and fees will kick in to help finance the $52 billion package in Senate Bill 1, which includes $34 billion over the next 10 years for repair and maintenance of roads, highways, bridges and culverts.

“This legislation will put thousands of people to work.” — Jerry Brown

But it’s worth it, backers say, and polls show most Californians want to fix their crumbling roads.  All regions of California can expect to benefit, says lead author Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, the prime mover behind the bill.

“Every area will get a proportionate share of the funds in a fair manner,” Beall said. “Transportation is allocated on a formula basis so we don’t have a food fight when the money comes up.”

Gov. Brown agreed. He quickly signed the measure into law the day after it emerged from the Legislature in a dramatic, narrow final vote and he pushed hard for SB 1.

“Safe and smooth roads make California a better place to live and strengthen our economy,” Brown said. “This legislation will put thousands of people to work.”

“This is going to take money out of people’s pocketbooks because Sacramento has failed them for decades.” — Chad Mayes

But not everybody is so positive: The bill was opposed by nearly all Republican legislators because of the tax hikes that provide the funding for the improvements. And they complained about the horse-trading of high-dollar projects – about $1 billion worth by one estimate — to cobble together the votes to get the package through.

“This is going to affect people in a real way,” said Assembly GOP Leader Chad Mayes of Yucca Valley. “This isn’t an abstract concept. This is going to take money out of people’s pocketbooks because Sacramento has failed them for decades.”

He said legislators could have repaired the state’s highways and roads by better managing existing funds. “We have failed to do core functions that we should be doing,” Mayes said. “Because we failed, people are going to suffer for it.”

SB 1 raises the base gas excise tax by 12 cents a gallon beginning Nov. 1. The excise tax on diesel fuel will go up 20 cents a gallon. Sales tax on diesel will go up 4 percent.

Drivers will have to pay a new annual transportation improvement fee starting in January 2018. The fee ranges from $25 for cars worth less than $5,000 to $175 for cars worth over $60,000. Electric car owners will have to pay a new annual fee of $100 beginning in model year 2020.

“The fluctuation in gas prices day to day can be 25 cents and no one raises an eyebrow.” — Robbie Hunter.

The bill’s supporters said the tax and fee increases are necessary because state transportation taxes and fees haven’t been increased in 20 years. According to the bill text, the state faces a $59 billion shortfall to adequately maintain its existing state highway system over the next decade.

Robbie Hunter, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council, said the bill creates much needed jobs for construction workers.

He said the tax hikes are necessary to complete long deferred maintenance and repair on the state’s crumbling roads. “You can’t run around putting Band-Aids on everything,” he said.

“Somebody else is driving them (legislators) around so they don’t have to buy gas.” — Bill Davis

He pointed out that the state’s residents already have to contend with variable gas prices. “The fluctuation in gas prices day to day can be 25 cents and no one raises an eyebrow,” he said.

But Bill Davis, owner of the Calimesa construction company Cunningham Davis, estimates that the bill will cost him $20,000 in additional fuel expenses for his trucks, which drive long distances to jobs.  He said he has three-year contracts with utility companies he services and can’t tack on a surcharge now because of the added gas expense.

“People in the Legislature don’t pay for things like the people at this end of the world,” he said. “Somebody else is driving them around so they don’t have to buy gas.”

In addition to funding road repairs, the bill will give money to other transportation -related projects. About $7 billion will go to mass transit. This could include replacing equipment and upgrading rail lines. Beall said the state’s transit systems have some serious needs, citing as an example that BART is finally buying new cars not replaced since 1969. “This transit stuff is old and squeaky,” he said.

The remaining $11 billion will go to a variety of other transportation concerns.

These included “active transportation” projects such as bicycle trails and walking paths and “self-help incentives” – matching grants for counties and local governments that pass their own transportation sales taxes.

There is also money set aside to study solutions for congested highways. Beall is proud that the bill includes $70 million to University of California and California State University to research transportation solutions. Possible areas for research could include self-driving cars and platooning- a automated highway system that could allow many cars or trucks to accelerate or brake simultaneously through electronic or mechanical coupling.

“This is so we can devise better laws for the future – new ways of solving congestion, more efficiency,” he said.


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