Gas taxes just increased. Now Caltrans needs to prove we’re not wasting our money

If they make it to the gas station without hitting a pothole, motorists stopping Wednesday to fill up might do a double take.

Knowing there’s little chance Congress will come to the states’ aid with sufficient money for highway repairs, California’s Legislature followed more than 20 other states in taking the bold if belated step earlier this year of jacking up the gasoline tax, starting Nov. 1. Pump prices jumped by 12 cents a gallon and 20 cents for diesel.

We support the gas tax increase, the first in 23 years. We have ignored our roads and other infrastructure for too long, and the bill is past due. Paying taxes is a cost of living in a society and providing safe roads is a basic government function. Now Caltrans must ensure that public trust and taxpayers’ dollars won’t go to waste.

For most people, the tax will be a blip, maybe the cost of a beer a month. But the tax will generate $5.2 billion a year, or $52 billion over the next decade to repair state and local roads, rebuild bridges, ease bottlenecks, and build more public transit. One sure way to avoid the tax would be to stop driving. But if you use the roads, you ought to chip in for their upkeep.

This being California, the hike will be the stuff of talk radio chatter. Having failed to qualify a ballot measure attacking public employee pensions in 2015, Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego councilman and current talk show host, is trying to raise money for an initiative that would repeal the gas tax, and no doubt raise his profile. The anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is joining that effort, and some other conservatives likely will pile on.

The initiative they’re touting for the November 2018 ballot is short-sighted. The wording would make it all but impossible to raise taxes to fund road repairs. At the same time, the California Republican Party, DeMaio, and L.A. radio personalities John and Ken are abusing the power of recall to unseat Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton.

They cynically claim they’re attempting to recall him for his vote in favor of the gas tax, as if he committed treason. In reality, Newman won a seat in 2016 that Republicans thought they should have held. We trust voters in Newman’s Fullerton-area district will see it for what it is: an attack on a legislator who voted his conscience.

The state already has been expediting projects, earmarking $278.3 million to repave Highway 50 from Interstate 5 to Watt Avenue in Sacramento, $99.9 million to improve 32 miles on Highway 99 in Fresno, and $15 million in San Luis Obispo to upgrade crossings to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. By the spring, Caltrans will have announced billions more in spending to ease gridlock and help fund more public transit.

It’s easy to joke at Caltrans’ expense. How many times did it have to repave the W-X Freeway in downtown Sacramento? Why did it take five years to complete the Across the Top freeway project on Interstate 80?

As part of the tax and fee hike, the Legislature established targets to ensure work gets done, and created an inspector general to regularly report on its progress.

No one relishes spending money on gas taxes. But potholes don’t fill themselves. So unglamorous though it is, we’ll grumble and curse, and pay a little more – and it is a little, $2.40 a week if you use 20 gallons – for the privilege of driving on roads that won’t knock our front ends out of alignment. Maybe, in time, we’ll be able to get home at the end of the day a few minutes earlier.