Walters: State's hefty fuel tax buys poor roads

If you spend some time driving in other states, returning to California's roads and highways is a jarring experience -- literally.

Federal Highway Administration data tell us that California not only has the nation's worst traffic congestion but it has the second-roughest roadways.

But as of last week, California motorists are paying the nation's highest fuel taxes, nearly 72 cents a gallon, including those for the federal government, due to an annual adjustment by the Board of Equalization.

What's wrong with this picture? Everything.

California is a high-tax state. It has the nation's highest income and sales tax rates, and only relatively moderate property taxes prevent its having the highest overall burden of state and local taxes.

So what, one might ask? Hasn't it always been, relatively, a high-tax state? Yes, but during the three decades after World War II, its economy boomed and Californians also enjoyed high levels of public services, with its magnificent highway system an obvious example.

California was so adept at building and maintaining first-class highways that its engineers were lent to other nations all over the globe. But, as with other public services, the roadway system began to deteriorate in the 1970s and 1980s.

Expansion slowed to a crawl, despite high levels of population growth, and congestion was the inevitable result.

Meanwhile, maintenance lagged and California's state and local roadways were plagued by potholes and other signs of deterioration.

Some older freeways are literally falling apart. And once-proud Caltrans is being roasted for its sloppy oversight of an over-budget, overdue upgrade of San Francisco's Bay Bridge.

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