LA Times Capitol Journal: Gov. Brown’s proposal to fix California’s roads isn’t perfect, but lawmakers should give the plan a shot

The following is an column written by the Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton on April 3. To view the original post click here. 

A road repair kit would make a nice birthday present for Gov. Jerry Brown. And that’s what he’s asking for from the state Legislature.

But never mind Brown. This would be a gift we all could enjoy, even with the attached tax increases.

The governor has set Thursday as the deadline for passage of a long-stalled road repair package. That’s the day before his 79th birthday. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but it’s doubtful.

Being presented a major infrastructure bill and finally blowing out the candles on this nagging transportation issue would seem a comfy birthday fit for the political veteran.

There’s nothing mandatory about the deadline. If it comes and goes, and the Legislature is still flailing, that’s life in Sacramento.

But time is running out for the four-term governor, who will be forced from office by term limits after next year.

“I’ll be going to my ranch in two years,” Brown told reporters last week, referring to his ancestral spread in the rolling hills of Colusa County. “You want to have a screwed up state with a bunch of potholes, go ahead. But that’s insane.”

I worry for my car. There’s a northbound stretch of Interstate 5 in Sacramento, five minutes from the Capitol, which feels every morning like a Sierra stream bed. Bang and bounce. Each legislator should be required to travel this potholed route daily. It might jar some sense into them about the need to pay for repairs.

The Legislature hasn’t voted for a gas tax increase since 1989, when Republican Gov. George Deukmejian pushed hard for one. But the tax wasn’t adjusted for inflation.

Since then, the tax has lost half its purchasing power. Moreover, motorists are buying fewer gallons today because vehicles are more fuel efficient. And the state has a $130-billion backlog of needed repairs.

Brown and legislative leaders, after two years in idle, finally punched the accelerator last week and proposed a specific repair plan.

The basics: $5.2 billion raised annually for 10 years. Of that, 65% would be spent on fixing state and local roads, bridges and culverts. Transit would get 20%. Plus, there’d be money to improve “trade corridors” — routes around ports — and some for bicycle and pedestrian lanes.

The revenue: Gas taxes would rise by 12 cents per gallon to 30 cents, and diesel by 20 cents to 36. The sales tax on diesel also would be hiked by 4 percentage points to 9.75%.

That’s not all. There’d be a new annual fee on vehicles, based on their worth. A car worth less than $5,000 would pay $25. Then there’d be a sliding scale up to $175 for a car worth more than $60,000.

Electric cars would be assessed a $100 annual fee because they escape gas taxes.

It all would average $13 per month, or so the state says.

A 2018 ballot measure would amend the state Constitution to prohibit any of the new money from being spent on anything but transportation.

“It’s pay now or pay more later,” says Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who with Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) is trying to ramrod the bill through the Legislature before it goes on spring break Thursday. Roads will only crumble into worse shape until they’re fixed, De León points out.

This probably is the Legislature’s most important bill of the year — and certainly one of the toughest to pass. That’s because any tax increase — thanks to Proposition 13, the 1978 property-tax cutter — requires a two-thirds legislative vote. Back in the day when the Legislature got more done and could adjust taxes to fit the economy, only a simple majority was required.

Democrats do hold a supermajority now, but some “mods” are frightened by the tax bogeyman. And modern Republicans seem genetically incapable of voting to raise taxes. That eviscerates any bargaining power they might have.

“If Republicans voted for it, they could ask for things,” says Allan Zaremberg, a longtime political player who heads the California Chamber of Commerce, a strong supporter of the bill. “If you don’t vote for it, you don’t get things.

“Everybody knows it’s a tough vote. But what alternative is there? The roads are in terrible condition. I almost fell into a pothole today on Highway 101.”

Assembly Republicans have proposed their own no-tax plan. It would use current money that’s being spent on other things. For example, it would take the $3 billion generated by sales taxes on vehicle purchases and shift it from the general fund into transportation programs.

“If the argument is that the only solution is to increase regressive taxes that hurt lower- and middle-income families the most, we should reevaluate our priorities,” says freshman Assemblyman Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield), vice chairman of the Transportation Committee.

De León’s response: “That mindset is irresponsible. When you say you want to ‘reprioritize,’ it’s code for taking money away from schools, from senior citizens who have dementia…. It’s code for not wanting to say what you’d cut.”

This measure isn’t perfect, but it deserves passage. Our cars need help. And it’s a pay-as-you-go plan. No borrowing. No bonds that double the sticker price with interest payments.

But some shortsighted legislators will still act like fools who curse the darkness and refuse to flip on the light because it might run up the electric bill.

Brown’s birthday present may be a little late.

LA Daily News: Gas tax hikes a bitter pill we must swallow

The following is an editorial written by the Los Angeles Daily News editorial board on April 1. To view the original post click here. 

Gov. Brown’s package of tax hikes to fund road repairs is tough medicine to take, but we might just have to take it, at least in part.

We certainly can’t let California’s freeways, roads and bridges become even more run-down or unsafe. Something must be done, but it must be done in a prudent fashion.

Brown and Democratic legislative leaders have proposed $5.2 billion a year in additional gas taxes and car fees to fix the state’s lackluster roads. Over the next decade, $15 billion would go to local road repairs, and the same amount to state highway repairs, plus $4 billion for bridge and culverts, $5.5 billion to improve trade corridors and major commuting corridors, and $7.5 billion to improve local public transportation.

The proposal would increase the base excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents per gallon, from 18 cents to 30 cents. A separate price-based excise tax on gasoline would rise from 11.8 cents to 17.23 cents and would be indexed to inflation to rise in future years. A new fee on vehicles would average $48 per year, based on the value of the car. Drivers of electric cars would pay an annual $100 fee.

That’s a steep price for drivers and truckers. But, here’s the thing: It’s been 23 years since gas taxes were raised, and if the tax had been indexed to inflation, it would be higher now than the governor’s proposal will make it. Inflation and more efficient cars have meant that money for road maintenance has fallen far behind the deterioration of our roadways, and we see — and feel — the results every time we drive. The administration claims each California driver now spends about $700 a year in vehicle repairs caused by rough roads.

The package includes a constitutional amendment to be passed by voters to require that all the money is spent as promised. That’s a nod to the fact that Sacramento has for years diverted transportation tax revenue, including truck weight fees, to other purposes. This proposal includes $706 million in loan repayments from the General Fund. There would also be an inspector general to ensure that Caltrans and other agencies use the money efficiently.

Those steps are good, but we need to see another: The Legislature must put a 10-year sunset on the whole package of taxes. Any such taxes should be reviewed periodically, and quick advancements in transportation technology make it even more important in this case. Hyperloop, self-driving cars and other innovations are on the horizon.

Of course, we’d like to see Brown forced to give up his high-speed rail plan and divert the money to real transportation needs. That would make this package a win for everyone.

These tax hikes are essentially user fees, and that’s better than the typical approach to taxes in the state. And paying as we go is better than borrowing.

Of course, there are serious downsides, too.

Drivers’ pocketbooks will be hit, especially poorer drivers with long commutes. Higher diesel prices will be passed along to consumers.

Politically, we’re irked that state leaders have ignored this basic need so very long while spending our taxes on less vital priorities. We can point to all kinds of bad spending decisions through the years at the state level, but that doesn’t make our roads any smoother.

If we let our roads and highways keep deteriorating, our economy eventually will fall into a sinkhole.

Undoubtedly, state taxes are too high, but we need our transportation infrastructure fixed. The governor and his party ought to show good faith and find ways to reduce taxes and spending in other areas of government and prioritize the budget (which is at or near all-time highs) without consistently going back to the public for more money.

Unfortunately, this is a case where we have to swallow hard and pay for the time that’s been lost and the money that’s been spent elsewhere. If voters do not like it, they should vote accordingly during election season.

Stanislaus County Supervisor: Consider increased gas tax a worthwhile investment in our roads

The following is an editorial submitted to the Modesto Bee written by Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa on March 30. To view the original post click here. 

California is at a crossroad when it comes to how we fix the highways, roads and bridges in our state and in our hometowns. We can either continue driving on rutted roads full of potholes, or we can decide to fix them and maintain them better so we get a full return on our investment.

That’s why I am urging our local State Senator and Assemblymember to join me in supporting the recently released compromise plan to fix our roads.

Let me tell you how bad things are in Stanislaus County. Historically, we have resurfaced 75 to 100 miles of roadway per year. But because of lack of funding, in the past two years we have only resurfaced 3.5 miles per year. We have had to reduce pothole patching by 50 percent and substantially reduced maintenance for bridges, shoulders and striping.

As a result, Stanislaus County roads are falling apart. Our Pavement Condition Index (developed by the Army Corps of Engineers) is in the 50s on a scale of 0 (failed) to 100 (excellent).

How did we get here? The state taxes every gallon of gasoline 38 cents, using this money as the main source of funds to maintain our streets and roads. But the tax hasn’t increased since 1994. Between inflation, and advancements in vehicle fuel efficiency, we have lost roughly 50 percent of the buying power we used to have.

We need to raise new revenues for roads. Some say that there’s plenty of money in the general fund to pay for road repairs. But with a backlog of repairs standing at $130 billion, that’s not feasible.

We need to invest more in our roads now because letting problems fester only makes them worse and more expensive to fix. The plan announced earlier this week would mean that drivers in California pay about $10 more per month.

That small amount every month makes sense to me as a smart investment because driving on bad roads means I pay far more than that to fix and maintain my personal vehicle and the trucks I use in my farming business; about $750 a year more for each one. If we fix our roads, I won’t have to fix my vehicles as often, and neither will you.

The deal just announced this week by Gov. Jerry Brown and several key lawmakers achieves that goal. Senate Bill 1 will provide cities and counties with an additional $1.5 billion a year to maintain local infrastructure and the same amount to maintain the state highway system.

The plan will generate tens of millions of dollars of new revenue each year so Stanislaus County and our city governments can make road safety improvements, fill potholes and repair local streets, highways, bridges and overpasses.

All for about $10 a month. I think it’s worth it, and projects in Stanislaus County and throughout the San Joaquin Valley get the priority they deserve.

I know that both Senator Anthony Cannella and Assemblymember Adam Gray have been working to ensure that our community gets its fair share. And I hope they continue working with the governor and the bill’s authors to support smart and sustainable public investment in our future.

In addition to new revenues, this state transportation deal also comes with protections and oversight to ensure we’re not handing Sacramento a blank check. The deal contains tough accountability requirements including regular audits and oversight by the new office of the Transportation Inspector General to ensure state lawmakers can’t misspend the money. It also mandates strict constitutional protections to guarantee the money is spent only on transportation projects.

This isn’t easy, but neither is letting our road and bridges crumble.

Transportation CA: Transportation plan to rebuild California roads is long overdue

The following is an editorial submitted to the Sacramento written by Transportation California Executive Director Roger Dickinson on March 31. To view the original post click here. 

Major public investment in our roads and transportation infrastructure has been a key to California’s growth into a global economic superpower. But in recent years, many of the roads, highways and transit systems that connect our economy and our communities have fallen into disrepair – threatening our state’s economic growth and the safety and health of our residents.

This week, I stood with Gov. Jerry Brown and a broad coalition of business, labor and community leaders in support of a bold new plan to reinvest in our state and in our future – a plan to fix and maintain our roads, provide new funding for public transit and address the needs of our growing state.

The plan, Senate Bill 1, called the Road Repair and Accountability Act, invests $52.4 billion over the next decade to fix California’s crumbling roads and bridges, and will create tens of thousands of good-paying jobs. It will help fill hundreds of thousands of potholes, smooth thousands of miles of pavement and repair crumbling infrastructure that damages vehicles and worsens traffic congestion. The plan includes funding to modernize and expand public transit systems, to connect workers to jobs and help clean our air and protect our environment.

Lawmakers need to pass this bill immediately.

The Legislature has not raised revenue to address transportation needs in more than two decades – since George Deukmejian was governor. Since then, California has about 8 million more people and we drive more than 350 billion miles a year. We have more motorists driving more miles than any other state – and the state needs more revenue to repair its battered infrastructure.

The longer we delay fixing roads, the more serious and costly problems become. It costs eight times the amount to completely replace a road than it does to regularly maintain one. We saw evidence of that this winter, as storms sent roads, bridges and highways crumbling, disrupting commuters across the state. Caltrans’ emergency repair bill for 2017 has ballooned from the normal $150 million per year to more than $800 million – and counting. Cities and counties have at least an additional $400 million in storm-related damage.

Some say that we don’t need new revenues to bolster our transportation network.

That is simply not true. Their plan would substantially reduce funding for other key priorities like education and health care, and ensure that road repairs continue to be neglected in the future.

Our state has $130 billion in needed road repairs – more than the entire state general fund. SB 1’s investments are based on the principle set forth by President Ronald Reagan when he increased the federal gas tax in 1982 – that those who use the roads should help pay to maintain them.

This deal provides funding for road improvement projects in every community in California. It also includes $7.5 billion for public transportation, which can help communities reduce air pollution and meet our state’s ambitious clean-air goals.

This new revenue comes with tough new oversight and accountability measures to guarantee the expenditures are spent efficiently. Most important, the package contains a new constitutional amendment that prohibits the use of these funds for anything other than transportation improvements.

This plan is bold and fair, and long overdue. Too many Californians spend too much time sitting in traffic, waiting for trains or buses, or navigating dangerous streets. It’s time to end the gridlock in our Legislature and on our roads. This new public investment will improve the safety and quality of life for our residents, and allow California to continue to lead the way toward a better future.

Roger Dickinson, a former state assemblyman and Sacramento County supervisor, is executive director of Transportation California, a Sacramento-based construction industry organization. He can be contacted at rdickinson@transportationca.com.

Caltrans District 5: Paying up to fix our battered roads

The following is an editorial submitted to the Monterey Herald written by Susana Cruz, acting manager of public information for Caltrans District 5. To view the original post click here. 

Everyone agrees California’s roads need fixing. In the first two months of the year, Caltrans crews repaired nearly 97,000 potholes — almost twice as many as they repaired in 2016. The intense recent winter storms have brought more than $800 million in damage to state highways alone since January.

Why are the roads in such poor condition? The Golden State is the world’s sixth-largest economy, home to nearly 39 million people and moves about $3 trillion worth of goods annually on a highway system that, on average, is more than 50 years old. Californians drive more than 350 billion miles a year on the highways and roads — more motorists driving more miles than any other state. Gas taxes pay for road maintenance, yet the Legislature has not increased California’s gas tax in 28 years.

California has not raised a stable revenue source for road maintenance and one-time bond funds do not include a consistent funding source to maintain new infrastructure after it is built. As a result, maintenance costs are nearly four times the available state funding, resulting in a $6 billion annual maintenance backlog. As a result of that shortfall, the California Transportation Commission delayed or cut funding for over 200 new projects in recent years.

The recent storms are calling renewed attention to this infrastructure crisis. Storm damage has taken an immense toll on Monterey County, especially along Highway 1 from Big Sur extending to San Luis Obispo County. The most visible damage has been at the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, which experienced damage so severe in February it had to be torn down these past two weeks. Severe erosion due to winter storms caused the support beams of the bridge to fail; now Caltrans will be working expeditiously for the next six to nine months to rebuild the bridge and reconnect the Highway 1 coastline.

Aside from the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, Caltrans is working to clear major landslides and shore up erosion along a 30-mile stretch of Highway 1 — the department understands how important this corridor is to tourism and recreation along our beautiful coastline, as a department we’re working diligently to restore the roadway as quickly and safely as possible.

These incidents have shown the critical need for increasing California’s investment in repairing and maintaining our existing infrastructure. Every dollar we spend now on maintenance saves us from having to spend $8 on future, more expensive repairs.

In the Monterey region, new revenue could repair the crumbling pavement on Highways 68 and 101; improve Highway 183 in downtown Castroville, Highway 218 in Seaside and Highway 68 in Pacific Grove. We could also make the existing system run better with operational improvement for freight movement and changeable message signs along Highway 101.

The California Legislature is currently discussing a proposal that seeks to address these issues. As we wait for funding from Sacramento, Caltrans will continue to make the public’s safety our top priority and adopt a “fix it first” approach. Meanwhile, the need to increase funding for repairs and maintenance will not go away and will only grow more expensive the longer we wait.

Cal Chamber: Road repair tax is a responsible plan to get California moving again

The following is an editorial submitted to the Los Angeles Daily News written by California Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg on March 31. To view the original post click here. 

California’s roads, highways and transit systems are the backbone of our state’s $2.4 trillion economy. Every day, millions of Californians take to the streets to get to work or get their children to school. Billions of dollars’ worth of products move across our state every single day.

But after years of underinvestment, California’s transportation infrastructure is facing a crisis. All around our state, roads are falling apart. California drivers spend too many hours on traffic-choked and deteriorating roads, while businesses face increased costs and falling productivity from congested highways.

This week, the California Chamber of Commerce joined Gov. Jerry Brown, legislative leaders and a broad coalition of business, labor, local government and community leaders to support a new transportation plan that will raise the revenue needed to fix our roads and get California moving again. The plan comes with tough accountability measures and constitutional protections to ensure the money is only spent on the roads, highways and transit systems that are in such dire need of investment.

Recognizing the deterioration in our transportation system is something we all agree on. It is clear that our state highways and local roadways are in dire need of capital infusion. Revenues dedicated to roads have lost purchasing power since they were last increased 23 years ago.

Over time, the bill for our road repairs has added up. The average California driver pays an additional $760 every year in additional fuel and maintenance costs from overcrowded or deteriorating roads.

For nearly a century, user fees like the gas tax have been the basic source of funding for road improvements and upkeep. This has been a wise approach since the responsibility to pay falls on those who use our transportation system. It also insulates transportation spending from reliance on the volatile and intensely competitive state general fund.

Indeed, for nearly 80 years the state Constitution has shielded gas taxes from being spent on other general programs. Long term infrastructure projects need a reliable, consistent long term funding source.

Asking Californians to pay more is not something the Chamber of Commerce does lightly, or frequently. But in this case, it is the most prudent course of action. The plan would ask the average motorist to pay less than $10 per month.

The basic principle that those who use the roads should help maintain them is one that was embraced by Ronald Reagan and George Deukmejian. President Reagan pushed for a hike in the federal gas tax and Gov. Deukmejian took similar action on the state level in 1990.

Investing in transportation improvements will save taxpayers money in the long run. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that for every $1 spent on road improvements, there is an average benefit of $5.20 in the form of reduced vehicle maintenance costs, fewer traffic delays, lower fuel consumption and improved safety. It costs eight times more to replace a failed road than it does to maintain a road.

There is a difference between frivolous spending and smart investments. Fixing our roads and transportation systems is an investment in our future that will help our economy grow, and improve the quality of life for California residents and businesses.

This is a responsible investment. The public and our economy will be the beneficiaries of a comprehensive funding solution.

Investing in transportation improvements will save taxpayers money in the long run. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that for every $1 spent on road improvements, there is an average benefit of $5.20 in the form of reduced vehicle maintenance costs, fewer traffic delays, lower fuel consumption and improved safety. It costs eight times more to replace a failed road than it does to maintain a road.