Dan Walters

Is Jerry Brown finally committed to fixing California’s lousy roads?

Jerry Brown’s second governorship has been marked by half-a-loaf approaches to knotty state problems – just enough movement that he could check them off his bucket list.

Moreover, he’s refused to even tackle issues that he admits need work but sees as intractable, such as reforming the state’s convoluted tax system and its equally tangled environmental regulation, while lavishing attention on his personal climate change and nuclear proliferation crusades.

That said, as he looks ahead to the end of his remarkable dual governorships, Brown appears finally committed to improving California’s dilapidated roadway system, which started going downhill from neglect during his first governorship.

Capping years of effort, Brown, Democratic legislators, and business, labor and civic groups unveiled this week a package that would raise fuel taxes and fees, including a new levy on zero-emission cars that don’t use fuel.

It would spend more than $5 billion a year in state and local roadway improvements and non-automotive transportation – considerably more than Brown first proposed.

The plan would boost the gas tax by about 20 cents a gallon, making it one of the nation’s highest, but still wouldn’t do everything that needs to be done.

It’s rather chintzy on attacking congestion, for example, devoting just 5 percent of the funds to clogged urban commute corridors, even though advocates have often cited relieving gridlock as a benefit in their publicity campaign.

Even that token amount may violate the state’s policy of not adding capacity to roadways. Moreover, the package counts on new gasoline taxes, based on gallonage, for nearly half of its revenue, even though Brown’s administration has projected that its drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will cut fuel consumption by a third from the current 15-plus billion gallons a year.

Those quibbles aside, the plan would, if enacted, finally do something about the state’s pavement conditions, considered some of the nation’s second worst, which Brown correctly likens to fixing a home’s leaky roof.

“If you don’t fix the leak, your furniture will be ruined, your rug will be destroyed, the wood will rot,” he said.

The package also maintains the fundamental user-pays principle of transportation financing, which Republicans have, for some reason, been willing to abandon.

There appear to be no Republican votes for the package, which requires two-thirds legislative votes. Democrats have, on paper, enough members to do it by themselves, but every Democratic senator and all but one Democratic Assembly member would have to vote for it and it’s evident that not all the needed votes are nailed down yet.

The package is not only a test of whether legislative leaders can fully employ their much-vaunted supermajorities, but also of a new constitutional requirement that bills be on public display for 72 hours in final form before floor votes. It will, therefore, be more difficult for Brown to make last-minute tweaks in the package to satisfy holdouts, which is often the way big, complicated deals have been done.

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