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Special session: Fixing the potholes

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

Gov. Brown’s call for a special legislative session to fix California’s crumbling roads, highways and bridges comes as music to the ears of those who build big projects.

For months, groups representing labor, contractors, local governments, transportation interests and others worked on legislation to revamp the state’s roads and ease the movement of freight at the state’s ports. The bill, which would use the $1 billion collected annually in truck weight fees for road work, awaits action on the Senate floor. The measure may be converted to a special session bill and serve as the centerpiece of the legislative session.

In his special session call, Brown asked lawmakers to craft legislation that would cut into the estimated $5.7 billion worth of the repairs that are left undone each year.

Many of the same interests who worked on that bill have been meeting for months with the governor as well, and Brown, who has been support of infrastructure upgrades and is looking for a stable way of financing them, appears to be taking it a step further.

“I think what we’re seeing and hearing is that he’s finally really starting to engage,” Jim Earp, executive consultant of the California Alliance for Jobs, said after Brown announced the special session on Tuesday. Earp’s group represents about 1,700 construction companies and about 50,000 unionized workers.

Robbie Hunter, the head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, agreed, saying Brown “has guarded the finances of California trying to use the money in the places where it’s needed the most,” and appears committed to major infrastructure improvements.

Hunter said Brown was not inclined to go to voters to seek approval for bond financing. Lurking in the background is 2016, a presidential election year with what is likely to be a crowded, costly lineup of ballot propositions. Putting transportation funding on the ballot could cause the proposal to get lost in the shuffle.

Beall said the sticking point in the special session will be putting together two-thirds votes on money proposals, such as changes in the fuel tax and other fees, and funding myriad local projects.

“He (Brown) is trying to get away from future indebtedness,” said Hunter, whose affiliated unions represent about 350,000 workers. “He’s not kicking the can down the road …I think he sees that the income of the state has been climbing, and he believes the money exists to fix this right now.”

In his special session call, Brown asked lawmakers to craft legislation that would cut into the estimated $5.7 billion worth of the repairs that are left undone each year. The session begins Friday.

“The state’s current fuel excise tax is sufficient to fund only $2.3 billion of work—leaving $5.7 billion in unfunded repairs each year,” Brown said.

The bill already in the Senate, SB 16 by Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, would take the $1 billion in truck weight fees away from the general fund and “return it to its intended purpose: mitigating the damage to roads caused by heavy commercial trucks,” Beall’s office said.

Beall said the sticking point in the special session will be putting together two-thirds votes on money proposals, such as changes in the fuel tax and other fees, and funding myriad local projects.

The state gasoline tax was last raised 23 years ago and is now worth just 11 cents a gallon adjusted for inflation.

“Anything that revolves around finance requires a two-thirds vote,” Beall said. “We will have to piece it together.” He estimated that the state needs about $4.5 billion annually over the next decade to bring roads and highways across the state into good condition.

Beall’s measure, the product of hearings across the state, would boost the per-gallon excise fuel tax by 10 cents to cover losses due to inflation and increase the vehicle license fee by 0.07 percent annually over five years. It also would hike the vehicle registration fee by $35, and a put a $100 annual fee on zero-emission vehicles. The measure contains language that the money “will be used exclusively for road, street, bridge repairs, and improving freight mobility at ports.”

The state gasoline tax was last raised 23 years ago and is now worth just 11 cents a gallon adjusted for inflation – the lowest inflation-adjusted rate on record in California since the first gas tax was adopted in 1916.

The bill also guarantees that the revenue will be used exclusively for road, street, bridge repairs, and improving freight mobility at ports. California has about 50,000 lane-miles of highway and 13,000 state-owned bridges, according to the governor’s office.

“The Senate has gone out and gotten into this all over the state,” Beall said. “My bill is a base, we’ll make changes and try and make it acceptable. We just want to get this done.”

According to Beall’s office, the “pothole money” in SB 16 includes:
— Alameda County: $21.2 million. Cities within the county would share an additional $26.5 million, which includes $8.7 million for Oakland.
–Contra Costa County, $16.4 million; cities, $18.8 million.
–Fresno County, $20.5 million; cities, $16.2 million, including $10.4 million for the city of Fresno.
–Los Angeles, $126 million; cities $191 million, including $83 million for the city of Los Angeles.
–Orange County, $41 million; cities, $62.5 million, including $7,2 million for Santa Ana.
–Sacramento County, $24.9 million; cities, $18.3 million, including $9.8 million for Sacramento.
–San Francisco, $27.3 million.
–Santa Clara, $26 million; cities, $36.6 million, including $20.7 million for San Jose.
–San Diego County, $24.9 million; cities, $55.9 million, including $27.9 million for the city of San Diego.
–Shasta County, $6.3 million; cities, $2.2 million, including $1.8 million for the city of Redding.


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