PD Editorial: Highway fix is still stalled in Sacramento

On June 16, 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown called a special legislative session to address the deteriorating condition of California’s roads and highways.

That was 429 days ago.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say nothing has happened. The state’s roads have gotten worse.

And unlucky drivers are paying a steep price in car repairs and time spent stuck in traffic.

Only 21 percent of California’s major roads are in good condition and one in four bridges need upgrades, according to the most recent annual report from TRIP, a transportation research group based in Washington. Driving on deficient roads costs motorists more than $53 billion a year.

Some of the highest costs are in the Bay Area.

The report says drivers in San Francisco and Oakland pay an average of $2,824 a year for expenses attributable to lousy roads. In San Jose, the bill is $2,471. Sonoma County probably isn’t much different, but TRIP’s report breaks out costs only for California’s five largest metropolitan areas.

Rehabilitating the state’s roads and highways is an expensive proposition. California’s maintenance backlog is estimated at $59 billion, with $78 billion more needed for local roads.

Expanding the transportation network to accommodate growing demand would cost even more.

As the TRIP report illustrates, drivers already are paying a price for doing nothing.

Redirecting that money to road maintenance would pay dividends. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that every dollar spent on road, highway and bridge improvements produces $5.20 in reduced maintenance costs and fuel consumption, fewer delays and improved safety and reduced emissions.

California’s problem is mirrored across the nation. Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the state Legislature has shown the will to pass a comprehensive transportation funding plan.

Taxes on gasoline and diesel are the traditional - and logical - source of funding for roads and transit - a textbook example of a user fee. But revenue from fuel taxes hasn’t kept pace with the need for a variety of reasons, including a dramatic increase in fuel-efficiency and an exponential increase in the number of electric vehicles on the road, especially here in California.

The state transportation commission already is dropping projects from its five-year plan because there’s no money to pay for them. As gas mileage continues to improve (as mandated by the federal government), and more drivers switch to hybrids and fully electric cars, the funding shortfall will grow even larger.

The solution wasn’t a mystery when Brown called the special session, and it still isn’t 14 months later. California needs to increase fuel taxes, which are unchanged since 1990. The state also must compel people who drive electric vehicles to contribute toward road maintenance.

A new proposal from Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, and state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, surfaced this week. They would increase the gas tax by 17 cents and the tax on diesel fuel by 30 cents, with future adjustments to account for inflation, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. The proposal also includes a new $165-a-year fee for zero-emission vehicles. The plan would generate $7.4 billion a year for state and local roads at a cost of $2.55 per 15 gallons of gasoline.

The chances of success before the Legislature adjourns at the end of the month? It needs a two-thirds majority, and Republicans still object to any tax increase. Frazier says he’s open to returning to work after the election, which will be held 511 days after Brown called the special session.

Our advice: Be ready to keep dodging potholes.

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