The Legislature wrapped up another on-time budget that includes more money for a wide array of social programs, but we can’t help but wonder why lawmakers have so far overlooked California’s crumbling transportation infrastructure.
We have underinvested in transportation for decades. The state gas tax was last increased in 1994, and that 18 cents per gallon is only worth 8 cents today. Coupled with cars that use far less fuel, that has dramatically reduced the money available to take care of our existing system.
A few transportation heroes in the Legislature have tried to craft a solution, but discovered that while most of their colleagues say something must be done, they also have a litany of excuses for why they can’t support additional revenue to improve our infrastructure.
For instance, they call for using existing general fund money. But past budget battles have shown that the general fund is not a reliable source for transportation projects. In an economic downturn, transportation never trumps children, students, the elderly, the disabled and the poor. Clearly, a transportation funding solution requires protected sources of revenue.
Some say we should be using extra revenue generated by climate change regulations. Ironically, those who blow this horn the loudest are the same ones who vehemently opposed those regulations in the first place. You can only spend this money once. If it is to be spent to achieve environmental goals, it can’t also be spent on roads.
Others say that with the right transportation reforms, there would be enough money for road repairs. While there are changes that could improve state and local operations, the savings won’t be nearly enough to take care of our needs.
And some say that if existing transportation funds weren’t being diverted, we would have enough money to fix our roads. This mixture of a few drops of truth with a gallon of falsehood provides convenient cover for those who simply don’t want to deal with the challenges of negotiating a transportation solution. In the early 2000s, legislators raided transportation funds to pay for other programs, but voters approved several initiatives that placed strong constitutional protections on most transportation revenues.
No one is claiming that a solution for California’s deteriorating transportation system is easy, but it is attainable. The governor and the Transportation Committee chairpersons in both the Senate and Assembly have put forth viable proposals, and all have expressed willingness to be flexible in negotiating a final product.
We know a final package must include significant reforms to make the best use of existing funds, and a few Republicans have agreed to help flesh out those proposals. But the final product must also include additional revenue to deal with this massive, multi-billion dollar problem.
We recognize the political risk of approving new taxes, particularly in an election year. But it is exceeded by the risks of failing to address a serious and critical problem facing our state.
James Earp is a member of the California Transportation Commission, which oversees funding for state projects, and can be contacted at email@example.com. Will Kempton is executive director of Transportation California, a coalition of contractors, unions and others, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.