When California was building what became a world-class network of freeways, highways and local roads after World War II, it relied on a simple financial tool called “user pays.”
Personal and commercial users of roadways paid for their construction and maintenance through fuel taxes, motor vehicle fees, bridge tolls and weight fees on trucks.
The system enjoyed wide public support because of its self-evident fairness, although there were occasional squabbles over how the money was being spent.
It broke down in the 1970s as those on the left came to see highways as an environmental and social evil and those on the right rigidly opposed new taxes of any kind.
Jerry Brown’s first governorship was marked by ceaseless wrangling in the Capitol over the issue as new construction slowed to a crawl but traffic spiked upward.
Four decades later, California motorists are paying some of the nation’s highest gasoline taxes but face the nation’s worst traffic congestion on roadways that are crumbling from heavy use (nearly a billion vehicle-miles a day) and maintenance neglect.
Meanwhile, the time-tested user-pays principle has eroded. The state has sometimes used bonds for highway construction, most prominently a 2006 bond issue that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger championed. And local governments have turned to sales tax increases to finance not only local projects but state highways.
For the past couple of years, the Capitol has fitfully talked about the transportation financing crisis. Brown 2.0 has proposed a modest plan, and as the new legislative session began, a two-house proposal surfaced.
The latter would partially honor the user-pays principle by raising fuel taxes and placing new fees on electric and hybrid cars that consume little or no fuel.
However, it also would violate the principle in several ways, such as indirectly tapping the state’s general fund by compelling it to pay for the 2006 transportation bond issue. After becoming governor in 2011, Brown insisted that the bond be repaid from transportation revenues, thus bolstering the user-pays principle, and the two-house proposal would reverse that decree.
The proposal also grabs fuel tax money that is derived from boaters and off-road vehicle users and is supposed to be spent on facilities and programs that benefit them.
Organizations of off-road vehicle and boat owners dislike that, as they should. Taking that money not only violates the user-pays principle but adds to the cynicism about official promises.
The operative ethos of those seeking a new injection of money not only for highways and local roadways, but public transportation systems, is to do whatever is necessary to get the requisite votes for enactment, no matter how it may violate fiscal principle or previous promises.
Maintaining and enhancing a huge roadway network that takes a pounding from a huge traffic load is costly, and we have neglected it for far too long. Whatever it costs, the burden should fall on its users without flim-flam.