Returning from lofty talks in Paris, Jerry Brown must turn to rutted reality of potholes

A pothole on Canal Street in Merced.
A pothole on Canal Street in Merced. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

With historic climate change discussions concluded in Paris, Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers return now to the more prosaic reality of California’s miserable roads.

Once again, Brown will ask legislators – and taxpayers – to spend $36 billion spread over the next decade to repair roads, bridges and culverts. For motorists, there’s probably no good alternative other than paying more for decent pavement.

Still, new reporting by the nonprofit CalMatters journalism project underscores the public’s annoyance: Though we pay among the nation’s highest gasoline taxes, we have some of the worst roads. The Brown administration says 41 percent of the state’s pavement is distressed or needs maintenance.

The backlog, which took years to develop, exists even though the state spent $4.4 billion a year between 2008 and 2014 on transportation, funded by the federal stimulus money and a $20 billion highway bond approved by voters in 2006. Most of that went for improvements, not maintenance.

Now the repair cost for all state and local roads, bridges and culverts could be as high as $135 billion. No one realistically expects the state to lay out that whole sum. But Brown contemplates a $36 billion, 10-year plan, funded by 6-cent per gallon gasoline tax increase to rise with inflation, and a $65 a year increase in fees charged per vehicle. There would be an 11-cent per gallon surcharge on diesel fuel because trucks use the heavily traveled trade corridors from the ports.

According to the administration, the fees would average $7 a month, not much. But gas taxes are regressive, and consume a larger proportion of more modest paychecks. Working Californians, particularly those who rely on gas-fueled vehicles for their livelihood, would feel the pinch more.

Because electric cars use no gas, their owners, who tend to be more affluent, would pay nothing beyond the $65 vehicle charge. The state should encourage zero-emission vehicles, but Brown’s $65 fee seems light. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Beall, D-San Jose, urges a $100 fee on electric vehicles. That seems fairer.

But any new funds must be spent efficiently, and that starts with the agency responsible for our roads, Caltrans. The Legislative Analyst Office, not known for harsh rhetoric, issued an unusually stinging report in 2014 documenting bloated Caltrans staff and error-ridden data.

Although the governor promises reforms, top administration officials defend the notoriously overstaffed and calcified department, echoing the defense of multiple defects in the $6.5 billion Bay Bridge until that stand became untenable.

The electorate probably will have its say on transportation funding, either through a measure placed on the ballot by the Legislature, which would be preferable, or by initiative, which might favor interest groups that fund it. Voter support will largely depend on assurances that money actually will go toward potholes, not frills, and definitely not more Caltrans featherbedding.

Ultimately, of course, the goal is more public transit and roads that are far less choked with gas-fueled traffic. We share the sense of urgency in reducing greenhouse gases. But back in California, as we rush from home to work to kids’ carpools to weekends on the coast or in the Sierra, for the moment we still have to keep an eye on the roads.