Written by David Castellon
Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders are planning a 2 p.m. announcement today in Sacramento on a plan to increase taxes to fix the state’s roads.
Though details are slim, The Mercury News is reporting that the legislation would include a 12-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase and new vehicle registration fees for repairs estimated as high as $59 billion for state highways and $78 billion for local roads.
The issue has been top-of-mind for local groups, including representatives from South Valley communities and groups representing businesses that gathered last Friday in Fresno to press for a gas tax.
They urged residents to contact their state legislators to urge them to cut deal on legislation to pass a transportation-funding package.
“For too long, the state has neglected its infrastructure,” forcing local road and bridge projects to be pushed back to the point of creating serious backlogs,” said Kings County Supervisor Craig Pedersen, among the speakers representing Fix Our Roads, a coalition of government, labor, transportation and business groups from around the state pushing for a new transportation-funding package.
And the clock is ticking, said Orville Thomas, director of government affairs for the California Alliance for Jobs, noting that state lawmakers held hearings for two years to develop a funding plan without coming to an agreement.
After the failure last year, Gov. Jerry Brown issued a letter stating that approving a transportation funding bill would be a priority this year, and he set a deadline of April 6 — before state lawmakers go on their spring break — to pass one.
The Fix Our Roads Coalition was supportive of two bills circulating around Sacramento that “are long-term transportation reform and funding packages that contain new revenues to make road safety improvements, fill potholes and repair local streets, highways, bridges and overpasses.”
To that end, each bill would raise at least $6 billion when fully phased in.
That may seem like a lot, but supporters of the bill note that California’s excise gas tax to pay for transportation projects last was raised in 1994 to 18 cents a gallon.
Combined with other California taxes, drivers in the state pay 58.3 cents to the state on every gallon of regular gas they pump, according to Bankrate.com, making it among the most heavily taxed states for gas even without the potential increase.
And over the past 23 years, the number of vehicles causing wear and damage to California roads has increased, while more fuel-efficient engines have reduced the amount of gas drivers use, on average — shrinking revenues going to the state to pay for transportation projects. Inflation has also made road repairs and replacement more costly.
“Road repairs receive only 50 percent of the funding in real terms that they received in 1994. And it costs eight times more to fix a road than maintain it,” the California Association of Councils of Governments states on its website.
Pederson noted that in Kings County, the cost of doing an overlay to replace old, damaged asphalt now costs about $450,000 a mile.
“Ten years ago, it cost $270,000 a mile,” he said, noting that the county has had to resort to sealing some streets, a much cheaper alternative that serves as a quick fix but not as a good, long-term solution to repairing bad pavement.
“Kings County maintains approximately 942 centerline roadway miles with a current maintenance backlog of $52.3 million,” and that could balloon to $90 million over the next decade, Pedersen told reporters gathered in the parking lot of the Caltrans District 6 headquarters in Fresno.
Fresno City Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria noted that her city’s $14 million budget this fiscal year for road paving falls about $8 million short of the city’s actual need.
In addition, Fresno has about $250 million in needed street repairs that have been deferred due to lack of funds and another $25 million in deferred sidewalk repairs.
“California needs to identify a stable, long-term source of funding, or our roads will continue to deteriorate,” said Sharri Bender Ehlert, Caltrans’ District 6 manager.
And as recently as 2016, 41 percent of highways and pavement in California needed rehabilitation, preventative maintenance or replacement, she added.
“If winter 2017 had taught us anything, it’s that investment in regular, day-to-day maintenance and upkeep is critical,” said Soria, noting the severe road and bridge damage caused by strong winter storms earlier this year.
They include a mudslide that washed across Highway 41 between Morrow Bay and Atascadero, a portion of Highway 41 south of Yosemite National Park washed out and storm damage to the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge along Highway 1 near Big Sur so severe that it has be torn down and replaced.
The goal of organizers was to urge the public’s help to rally the governor and state lawmakers to work out a deal on transportation funding.
Unfortunately, the prospect of imposing a higher gas tax in a state where gas taxes already are among the highest in the nation is a matter that lawmakers haven’t wanted to wade into.
And some at the press conference accused state lawmakers of kicking the can — essentially doing nothing and putting off having to vote on a gas tax at the cost of California’s transportation infrastructure worsening.
But Thomas noted that avoiding the problem will cost the state a lot more in the long run, and while a transportation package could be voted on after the governor’s April 6 deadline, the level of interest in Sacramento to get something done before the legislators go on break could be just the push needed for a fully-formed bill to be put before the Assembly and Senate on which the lawmakers can vote.