Sac Bee Editorial: California freeways need help, and motorists need assurances

The following is an editorial written by Sacramento Bee Editorial Board on March 29. To view the original post click here. 

Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislators on Wednesday announced a 10-year, $52.4 billion freeway repair and construction deal, and business and labor leaders have been quick to applaud, rightly.

Like much of this state’s infrastructure, California’s roads are in disrepair. The gas tax hasn’t gone up in two decades. Under the deal, everyone who uses California’s rutted roads would pay in the form of higher state gasoline and diesel taxes and vehicle fees to fill potholes, rebuild bridges and widen the bottlenecks that exasperate motorists.

Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León intend to press for a vote next week. The package appears to warrant support, with caution. So far, Brown and lawmakers have only released an outline of the deal.

The language of the legislation is not yet public. Words matter, particularly in a $52.4 billion, 10-year deal. To win over environmentalists, the measure would include $7.5 billion for public transportation and $1 billion for paths for walking and bicycling. But environmentalists are concerned that the final deal will relax emission standards on diesel trucks.

In too many instances, the California Department of Transportation has incurred cost overruns and motorists have endured delays. We are reminded of that each time we cross the much-delayed $6.5 billion Bay Bridge or drive over the Across-the-Top section of Highway 80, a three-year project that took five years to finish.

The deal, outlined at a news conference on the east steps of the Capitol and later in the governor’s office, includes safeguards, and voters would get a chance to approve a measure that locks in money for transportation.

Additionally, the governor would appoint an inspector general who would oversee Caltrans projects; Caltrans would report to the Legislature annually on its efforts; and the California Transportation Commission would have expanded authority. All that is important. Whether it’s sufficient is another question.

No Republican legislator is backing the deal openly, which is unfortunate. Gridlock and potholes vex regardless of party. Democrats have time, though not much, to seek common ground.

Without bipartisan support, all 27 Democrats in the 40-seat Senate will need to vote in unison to attain the two-thirds majority needed to approve the tax hikes. Democrats have one vote to spare in the Assembly, where they hold 55 of the 80 seats.

Brown’s persuasion could be pivotal. Voting for a $5.2 billion a year tax hike is tough for any politician who aspires to statewide office, as most legislators do.

They would be approving another 12-cents-per-gallon tax, or an extra $2.40 on a 20-gallon fill-up, on top of the current state tax of 28 cents.

People who drive electric vehicles would pay an annual fee of $100, starting in 2020. Truckers would pay higher diesel taxes, and presumably pass along the costs to consumers.

“Yes, it will cost money,” Brown said. “If we don’t do it, it costs more money.”

People who use the roads will grumble about adding costs in our high-cost state. But we already pay dearly in wasted traffic time and damage from bumps in the roads.

That said, lawmakers and transportation officials need to know that grumbling will become growls if California’s tax dollars disappear into a pothole.

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