California’s highways are in bad shape and getting worse every day, with a backlog of deferred maintenance totaling tens of billions of dollars.
Gov. Jerry Brown says we should be spending $8 billion a year on repairs, but are actually spending less than a third of that, which means the backlog is growing by nearly $6 billion.
Oddly, however, the repair program Brown is offering to the Legislature would average just $3.6 billion a year, and much would be spent on transit or shared with local governments. All in all, highways would get just $16.2 billion over 10 years, a fraction of the unmet maintenance needs.
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Even were the Legislature to go along, therefore, the backlog would continue to grow, meaning the highways would become even rougher and more dangerous. We might even displace No. 1 New Jersey as having the nation’s absolutely worst roadways.
California motorists are already paying some of the nation’s highest gasoline taxes, and while polls indicate they want highway spending to increase, they’re not willing to pay higher taxes for it – an illogical attitude that permeates the issue.
Brown’s $36 billion, 10-year fix-it plan includes a $65 annual fee on all vehicles, an increase in gas taxes by freezing the periodic adjustments tied to price that have recently dropped taxes sharply, boosting diesel fuel taxes paid mostly by truck operators, and pumping in $500 million from cap-and-trade carbon emission auctions.
The latter is somewhat ironic, since the last auction fell flat and revenue may be close to zero for years to come.
So, one might ask, given that our gas taxes are already quite high, and under Brown’s plan, highways would deteriorate more, is it worth doing?
One could argue that something is better than nothing, but if the something consumes all the political energy and makes further progress impossible for at least 10 years, maybe we should allow the crisis to reach the stage where doing a real fix is inescapable. Maybe doing a little bit is just political cover.
It should be noted, too, that this tokenism, if enacted, would do nothing about expanding capacity to handle the inevitable increase in traffic that accompanies population growth.
We are already No. 1 in congestion, but the prevailing ethos in Sacramento, as laid out in a new Brown administration transportation plan, is to avoid adding capacity, in hopes of compelling Californians to shift from cars to mass transit – even though transit systems are, overall, losing patronage, not gaining it.
The main political hangup for even Brown’s token highway plan is the reluctance of Republican legislators, who would have to provide at least a few votes for new taxes.
They appear to be demanding reforms, such as an overhaul of the California Environmental Quality Act, although it could merely be an excuse to avoid voting for taxes.
However, Democrats are unwilling to change CEQA, even as they give certain favored projects – including sports arenas and a new legislative office building – exemptions.
It’s really quite a mess – traffic gridlock on roadways, confusion in the public and political gridlock in the Capitol.