Editorials

Legislators must fix our rutted roads

Rush-hour traffic crawls along Highway 101 toward downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. State legislators ought to devise a plan to fill potholes, ease gridlock, widen roads and improve public transit.
Rush-hour traffic crawls along Highway 101 toward downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. State legislators ought to devise a plan to fill potholes, ease gridlock, widen roads and improve public transit. The Associated Press

Divots on westbound Highway 80 outside West Sacramento cause bipartisan tire damage.

Republicans and Democrats alike bounce atop the rutted Pioneer Memorial Bridge on Highway 50 over the Sacramento River, which, as The Bee’s Tony Bizjak recently wrote, was repaved only two years ago.

On Wednesday, the Fix Our Roads coalition – composed of local officials, construction companies and building trade unions – will mass in Sacramento to urge that Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators approve transportation tax and fee hikes, citing estimates that there is a $130 billion maintenance backlog. They have a point.

Although some people could quibble with the size of the backlog, anyone who has blown a tire by driving over a pothole or swerved to miss one knows there are real costs and dangers to crumbling roads. The state needs to step in.

Brown’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year offers a solution in the form of proposed tax and fee hikes to generate $4.3 billion for roads and transportation, $43 billion over 10 years.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, is proposing a $5.5 billion plan. Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, suggests $6 billion.

Because Democrats hold two-thirds majorities in both houses, they could approve gasoline tax increases and road-related fee hikes without Republican support. They shouldn’t. Any smart solution would be bipartisan. The goal ought to be to fill potholes, ease gridlock, widen roads and improve public transit. That should not be a partisan issue.

Brown and legislators propose to pay for roads primarily by altering and increasing the gasoline tax, and by imposing an annual fee on all drivers, including those who drive electric vehicles. They differ on the size of the taxes and fees, but a compromise ought to be attainable.

Proposals by lawmakers and Brown insist on savings from Caltrans. The savings and efficiencies should be real, not window-dressing. Part of any deal also should include clear authorization to extend the cap-and-trade program, if, that is, state policymakers intend to continue with that program.

Originally proposed by free-market advocates, cap-and-trade is supposed to use market forces to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Its impact on emissions has been theoretical at best. But it has generated real money, which legislators are all too happy to spend.

Brown’s budget anticipates that lawmakers will approve cap-and-trade by a two-thirds margin, producing $2.2 billion in the coming fiscal year. Some of it would help pay for transportation.

On Tuesday, the California 3rd District Court of Appeal will hear oral arguments in a lawsuit by the California Chamber of Commerce claiming the current cap-and-trade program violates state constitutional provisions that require that taxes and fees be approved by two-thirds votes of the Legislature. Lawmakers approved Assembly Bill 32 of 2006, which led to the cap-and-trade program, by a simple majority vote that was nearly along party lines.

State regulators go through contortions to explain why it’s not a tax. But cap-and-trade adds 10.3 cents to the cost of a gallon of gasoline. Motorists who are aware they pay it understand that it is a cost of driving. As such, legislators ought to approve it by a two-thirds vote.

No one wants to pay more for a gallon of gasoline. But we all depend on roads, and we all have an obligation to pitch in to make them a little less bumpy.

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