California can have better roads or lower fuel taxes.
It can’t have both.
If you don’t drive a Chevy Volt or a Tesla, and maybe even if you do, you know that state fuel taxes went up on Nov. 1 for the first time in almost a quarter-century.
You may not know that Caltrans already has committed $5 billion of that tax revenue to speeding up road and bridge repairs around the state, including about $100 million for projects in Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties.
And you probably won’t be surprised to learn that two groups, one headed by a prospective 2018 gubernatorial candidate, have submitted initiatives to repeal the increased taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, an accompanying increase in the annual license plate fee and a new levy for all-electric vehicles to help pay for road repairs.
Our advice: Don’t sign their petitions if you want to drive on better roads.
Caltrans isn’t going to find an extra $5 billion a year by rifling its sofa cushions. Santa Claus isn’t going to leave a heap of cash under the Christmas tree at the state Capitol. And Congress, as its presently constituted, isn’t going to do any favors for California.
Car culture is woven into the Golden State’s identity as tightly as Hollywood, redwoods and the Golden Gate Bridge. But our freeways are crumbling, and repair projects totaling billions of dollars have been postponed because the highway fund is running on empty.
Even with the newly enacted taxes, there won’t be enough money to erase the $130 billion backlog in road, highway and bridge maintenance needs around the state.
But it will provide a $52 billion down payment, at a per-driver cost estimated at a little more than $2 a week. Used to leverage additional money from other sources, such as Sonoma County’s transportation sales tax, it will deliver considerably more bang for the buck.
Don’t fall for false claims that this money will only pad salaries at Caltrans and other public agencies, or that it will be chewed up by the governor’s high-speed rail project.
Senate Bill 1 earmarks $33.7 billion for maintenance and repair projects, $3.8 billion for congestion relief and $2 billion for local projects around the state, with spending on planning and research limited to less than 1 percent of the revenue.
High-speed rail isn’t eligible for funding, though there is $8.7 billion for transit. That’s OK. Putting more people aboard buses and commuter trains will reduce traffic congestion on streets and freeways and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The initial list of projects includes addressing drainage problems that cause frequent winter closures on Highway 1 along the Sonoma Coast and resurfacing Highway 116 near Sebastopol and Highway 101 in northern Sonoma County and southern Mendocino County. Local cities also are getting a share of the money.
California Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen, are pushing the repeal measures in hopes of getting some political traction in 2018. But as Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton pointed out on these pages last month, 25 other states, including 18 with GOP governors and 17 with Republican-controlled legislatures, have raised their gas taxes, too. Why? Because they know roads need to be maintained, maintenance costs money, and roads traditionally have been user-funded.