Political Notebook

Prop. 6 promises to save money at the pump, but what does it do to local road projects?

Yes or no on Proposition 6?

The California initiative to roll back last year's tax and fee increase will help drivers save at the pump in exchange for cancelled or downsized city and state road maintenance and projects.
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The California initiative to roll back last year's tax and fee increase will help drivers save at the pump in exchange for cancelled or downsized city and state road maintenance and projects.

California residents spend more money at the pump than any other state in the continental U.S., and voters will weigh in on whether to continue that trend in the expectation of funding road maintenance.

Proposition 6 has perhaps the clearest and most immediate impact on the highest number of people of the 12 California ballot initiatives.

A “yes” vote means nearly $800 in average annual savings at the pump through a rollback of the state’s gas tax in exchange for millions lost at the city level for road maintenance and billions cut for highway and bridge projects.

Supporters of Prop. 6 say California’s $201 billion budget – including a projected $9 billion surplus – has plenty of room for these improvements without taxing residents. But their opponents question whether anyone will actually save money from gas tax cuts, given the hundreds each driver spends per year on vehicle maintenance and accidents blamed on shoddy road conditions.

The initiative has become a political hand grenade locally, with few elected officials willing to choose a side and no central San Joaquin Valley city or county governments taking a position. Saving residents’ money in the poorest areas of the state has value, but so does an influx of new gas tax money for handling critically underfunded road maintenance.

Regardless of how the vote goes, all of the state’s drivers and even those who use public transportation will be impacted.

Yes on Prop. 6

According to the California Secretary of State’s office, Prop. 6 “eliminates certain road repair and transportation funding” and “requires certain fuel taxes and vehicle fees be approved by the electorate.”

Carl DeMaio, chairman of the Yes on 6 campaign, said this ballot language was one of his main hurdles.

“If you ask people if they want to repeal the gas tax, 65 percent of them say yes,” DeMaio said. “We’re trying to overcome this biased wording by telling them a yes vote is gas tax repeal.”

This “repeal” is in fact a rollback to pre-2017 gas tax numbers. Last year, the Legislature voted to increase the tax to provide more SB-1 funding, which – depending on who you ask – funds road maintenance.

The initiative would also require any future increases to SB-1 be approved by the electorate.

The rollback would still leave California with one of the highest gas taxes in the country, DeMaio said.

“A yes vote sends a message to the politicians that we’re onto their fraud,” DeMaio said. “They are stealing and diverting gas tax money, and we won’t be bullied into giving them more money.”

DeMaio claimed all of the SB-1 funds could be “raided” by Sacramento and placed in the general fund.

However, voters passed Proposition 22 in 2010 and Proposition 69 in June – both of which require the funds be used for “transportation” purposes, meaning road maintenance and construction but also light rail, bus routes and other public transportation options.

DeMaio called for the state to carefully scrutinize the Caltrans budget and other funding sources to come up with the $5 billion-plus taxpayers are now contributing through the gas tax increase.

Crucially, DeMaio said, Prop. 6 would save households an average of $779 annually in lower gas prices and vehicle fees.

State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford Fresno Bee file

State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, is one of only two central San Joaquin Valley state elected officials listed as a “gas tax repeal hero” on the Yes on 6 website. Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, is the second but declined an interview for this story.

“I represent the poorest district in California – maybe the whole U.S.,” Vidak said. “(Prop. 6) adds between $650 and $900 to my residents’ pockets. That’s a big chunk to someone making $20,000-$30,000 a year.”

Vidak said the state’s budget has increased by $36 billion since 2014 and has a $9 billion surplus – and not one of those dollars has gone to road maintenance.

He added that “not one cent” of SB-1 dollars must go to road maintenance. Instead, the money can fund high-speed rail, other light rail projects and expanded bus routes – all of which don’t mean much to the average rural Kings County resident who typifies Vidak’s constituency.

“SB-1 can keep increasing,” Vidak said. “In 2021, we will pay more than $2 per gallon in additional taxes and fees.”

Although polling has shown Prop. 6 is in danger of failing – a recent Public Policy Institute of California survey pegged it at 52 percent “no” to 39 percent “yes” – Vidak said he believes it will pass.

Although the “no” campaign has outraised DeMaio’s efforts by a staggering $34 million to $4 million as of July, Vidak noted that Republicans and even several notable Democrats pushing for election in November are acting as a “ground crew” for the Yes on 6 campaign.

“Some Democrats are coming out in support of it, and no Democrats are coming out against it,” Vidak said. “The campaign money is even given how challengers are talking about it.”

Democrats Josh Harder, Jessica Morse and Katie Porter – all of whom are hoping to flip vulnerable Republican House seats – have come out in favor of Prop. 6.

Two local congressmen – House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare – are among the “yes” campaign’s biggest financial supporters. McCarthy has given $300,000, while Nunes has donated $100,000 including personal TV advertisements and mailers on behalf of the campaign.

John Cox, the Republican candidate for governor, has donated $250,000 and used gas tax repeal as a major talking point against Democratic challenger Gavin Newsom.

No on Prop. 6

Although the No on 6 campaign lacks public Valley support, it boasts dozens of endorsements from city governments, trade groups, law enforcement agencies, environmental organizations and Democratic officials.

Arambula Portrait
Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno Jeff Walters Special to The Bee

Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula is among those opposed to Prop. 6. The Fresno Democrat cited both his personal experiences and the California Chamber of Commerce’s support for increasing the gas tax as his reasons for supporting the 2017 increases.

Arambula referenced his time as an emergency room physician “next to the deadliest highway in America,” Highway 99. He said there were 64 deaths per 100 miles of Highway 99.

“What we actually need to do is stop kicking the can down the road and fix problems,” he told The Bee’s editorial board Monday. “Those of us who are in public service actually have the responsibility to make sure our roads and communities are safe.”

Arambula said the state “had not done anything in decades” to truly address its infrastructure problem. He also supported the increased vehicle fees on electric cars, which he said damaged state roads without their owners paying their fair share through the traditional gas tax.

Relying on the budgetary surplus for a long-term project such as road repairs would not be good economic policy, Arambula added. The state needs to put away what it can in case of an economic downturn, which could lead to millions of Californians seeking public assistance.

Kiana Valentine, a senior legislative representative with the California State Association of Cities, said the widespread support for the opposition campaign shows the importance of increased road maintenance funding in the state.

“Proposition 6 takes us backwards in terms of addressing critical infrastructure needs,” Valentine said. “We have a $73 billion shortfall just to maintain roads.”

Valentine pointed to a recent report from nonprofit traffic researcher TRIP that noted the average driver spends more than $1,000 per year on vehicle operating costs, accidents and gas lost due to congestion.

“Proposition 6 would actually cost taxpayers more in the long-term,” Valentine said.

According to the TRIP report, residents of the Fresno-Madera-Visalia-Hanford area pay $1,665 per year in additional vehicle operating, safety and congestion costs.

Vehicle operating costs include having to fix a tire or alignment due to potholes or extra ware from damaged roads, which the report said constitute 68 percent of California’s roadways.

“Safety” as defined in the study encompasses accidents in which the roadway was likely a contributing factor.

Valentine also pointed to another study by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, which said the influx in transportation funds will lead to the creation of more than 68,000 jobs in the next 10 years.

Valentine said more than 6,500 infrastructure projects would be jeopardized should Prop. 6 pass.

According to Caltrans, more than $500 million in projects would be in immediate jeopardy in District 6, which includes Fresno, Kings, Madera, Tulare and Kern counties. Not all of these undertakings would be canceled; some would be placed on hold or downsized in some way.

These imperiled projects include: A $25 million repaving and drainage project on Highway 168 near Auberry, more than $50 million in Interstate 5 improvements near the Kings/Kern border and $20 million in traffic monitoring improvements on Highways 41, 99, 180 and 168.

Fresno: A case study

Like virtually all Valley cities and counties, the city of Fresno has not come out publicly on either side of Prop. 6.

However, Scott Mozier, the city’s director of public works, shared the impact a vote to enact the initiative would have on city projects.

The city stands to receive around $8.7 million in additional SB-1 funding for the fiscal year.

Some of the projects currently funded through this money include these repaving projects: Nees Avenue from First Street to Millbrook Avenue, Cedar Avenue from Barstow to Bullard avenues, Hughes Avenue near Ashlan Avenue and Maple Avenue between Olive and Belmont avenues.

There are also new traffic signals and sidewalk/gutter repair projects on the slate.

“Whole neighborhoods would be impacted,” Mozier said.

Among those would be an area bordered by Dakota Avenue, Millbrook Avenue, Hampton Way and Ninth Street, which is due to receive a $750,000 repaving and gutter improvement project.

A similar, $850,000 project is also planned for the neighborhood surrounded by Kings Canyon Road, Maple Avenue, Chestnut Avenue and Lane Avenue.

Should Proposition 6 pass, about two-thirds of this funding would be cut, and none would be allocated in coming years.

Mozier said any funding loss would impact his department’s ability to cut into the more than $600 million in deferred maintenance currently chipping away at city roads.

In addition to street improvements, the city has identified more than 70 intersections in need of street lights.

State funding could come from other sources, as the Prop. 6 supporters say. But if it doesn’t, it appears unlikely the city will have the funding to cover these projects, given that its general fund is already fully committed to departments like parks and public safety.

“If SB-1 stays in place, we can make a lot more headway on repairing our roads,” Mozier said.

Rory Appleton: 559-441-6015, @RoryDoesPhonics