Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California’s substandard highway system needs fix

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Let’s start with the basics about California’s highway network, which a few decades ago was considered to be among the world’s best.

It was mostly constructed in the three decades that followed World War II, as California’s population boomed and vehicular travel exploded.

Eventually, however, just about when Jerry Brown began his first governorship, highway construction slowed dramatically for a wide variety of ideological (both left and right) and financial reasons.

Nevertheless, vehicular travel continued to expand, along with population and economic activity. It’s roughly twice what it was 30 years ago, even though California’s population has increased by about 50 percent.

The slowing of capacity-increasing construction and the steady growth of auto travel eventually resulted in California having the nation’s worst traffic congestion, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Meanwhile, highways were taking a terrific pounding from that traffic, and as the system aged, it needed more maintenance and, in some cases, reconstruction. But that, too, lagged, leaving California with what the Federal Highway Administration says are the nation’s second-worst roadway pavement conditions.

Thus, what was a world-class system became something more like a Third World system – even though California’s motorists are paying the nation’s highest fuel taxes.

Seven years ago, at the urging of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, voters approved a $20 billion bond issue to upgrade highways, but almost all of that money has been spent, and Brown, now back in the governorship, has insisted that servicing Schwarzenegger’s highway bonds should fall on the separate highway accounts, rather than the state’s general fund budget.

Brown is correct in that insistence – highway improvements should be financed by motorists – but with fuel taxes already sky-high and mounting unmet needs for construction and maintenance, how should it be done?

A ballot measure proposed by highway advocates and construction unions would double the annual “vehicle license fee” – a form of property tax that today is just a third of what it once was – to raise about $3 billion a year for highways.

It falls short of what’s needed and may not be the best way to raise highway money. Yet just raising the gas tax would largely exempt owners of hybrid and electric vehicles, whose numbers are increasing.

Ideally, we would devise a new levy that’s tied more closely to real-world highway use, not only by cars but heavy trucks as well, and that charges motorists more for driving during peak travel hours, since morning and afternoon commutes put the greatest strain on roadway capacity.

And, ideally, Brown and the Legislature would address this vital issue themselves, rather than shuffle it to the initiative process.