From Carr Fire to Big Sur, one takeaway from disaster is how much we need good roads

Get close enough to see, hear fiery chaos of relentless Carr Fire

Fairfield Fire Department crews battle the Carr Fire as flames whip high into the sky on July 29, 2018.
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Fairfield Fire Department crews battle the Carr Fire as flames whip high into the sky on July 29, 2018.

California’s main seasons – fire and rain – have long generated more than their share of disaster. Still, this past year has been instructive as climate change has increased their intensity.

Take transportation. If it wasn’t already clear that maintaining asphalt is a life-and-death line item, last weekend’s lethal megafires drove home the point for thousands of evacuees.

The Carr Fire alone created miles-long traffic jams as terrified Redding residents jammed rural blacktops. In a few months, those who return to the scorched hills will become reacquainted with the wildfire postscript: mudslides.

Last week, Highway 1 near Big Sur finally reopened, 14 months after epic rain triggered the worst landslide in state history, to the tune of $1 billion in damage. And that money was just a drop in the rain barrel compared to the statewide cost of the 2017 winter downpours.

Global warming is here. Its impact won’t be receding. Ever more volatile weather systems will be sink-holing roads, undermining bridges and sluicing boulder-filled mud down onto critical rail lines and transportation links.

That’s something to keep in mind as the Nov. 6 election approaches, with its partisan debate over whether to repeal California’s recent tax increases for roads and transportation. Proposition 6, part of a strategy to drive up conservative turnout in the 2018 election, would put the kibosh on some $52 billion worth of transportation funding over the next decade.

And as The Sacramento Bee’s Alexei Koseff reported on Tuesday, if the repeal succeeds, its backers are already planning a follow-up initiative to severely restrict the use of transportation revenue from fuel taxes, car sales taxes and truck weight fees.

Tempting as it may sound to save a few cents at the pump – or to aim a satisfying, anti-tax kick in the pants at spendthrift state lawmakers – voters should remember that there’s a price for the short-term pleasure of jerking purse strings.

What’s that price? For starters, about 6,500 bridge and road safety, transportation and transit projects if Proposition 6 passes, according to a recent estimate from the nonpartisan American Road & Transportation Builders Association. That and $5 billion a year or more in cuts to other state obligations, such as courts and universities, if the follow-up ballot measure succeeds, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis.

We reserve judgment on Proposition 6, though we supported the gas tax. The needs of Californians are a moving target, and public spending should follow those priorities.

But part of that responsiveness must be to the needs created by global warming, the defining threat of our lifetime. In the long term, that means doing all we can to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. In the short term, it means spending what we must to prepare for the next disaster – and when it comes, to make it out in one piece.