Election Endorsements

Hating Caltrans isn’t a good enough reason to repeal the gas tax

A Caltrans work crew repairs a concrete slab on Interstate 5 in downtown Sacramento on Sept. 11, 2018.
A Caltrans work crew repairs a concrete slab on Interstate 5 in downtown Sacramento on Sept. 11, 2018. jvillegas@sacbee.com

If Caltrans weren’t such an easy target for criticism, the decision on Proposition 6 would be clear.

Despite those misgivings, voters should reject the Nov. 6 ballot measure – and keep the gas tax increase that is paying to repair crumbling bridges and roads, including busy commuter routes such as Highway 50 and Interstate 5 in Sacramento.

Proposition 6 would repeal Senate Bill 1, passed by the Legislature in 2017: a 12 cents per gallon gas tax increase (the state’s first in 23 years), a hike in diesel taxes of 20 cents a gallon and new vehicle registration fees. Caltrans and local agencies are splitting the money, which, by 2020, is projected to be $5.1 billion a year, a big chunk of California’s total transportation funding of $35 billion.

No one likes to pay more at the pump. But seriously tackling our state’s $130 billion backlog of highway and bridge maintenance and upgrades takes a significant, separate source of revenue. And these taxes and fees are the fairest method because those who use roads most are paying the most.

Proposition 6 backers say SB 1 is costing the typical family with two cars an extra $780 a year – a figure that includes shipping and other costs passed on by businesses. Opponents say the cost is more like $120 a year for the average driver. The real number depends on how many cars a family drives, how much they’re worth and how much gas they buy.

Supporters of Proposition 6 – which also would require voter approval of any future fuel or vehicle taxes – claim that the additional taxes from SB 1 aren’t needed. But they have yet to produce a credible plan that doesn’t cut billions from schools and other programs. And while they accuse the state of using transportation taxes for other purposes and plan a follow-up ballot measure to put that revenue in a “lockbox,” most revenue is already constitutionally restricted. In June, voters approved Proposition 69 to ensure that the new gas tax only gets spent on transportation projects.

Still, supporters tapped into those concerns – along with worries about the rising cost of living in California – to collect enough signatures to put the gas tax repeal on the ballot. According to the polls, Proposition 6 has a real shot at passing.

That would be disastrous for California, which needs a strong transportation network to support its growing population and economy.

SB 1 allocates two-thirds of revenues to highway and road repairs, and the other third to public transit and other transportation improvements. Already, it is helping finance major projects across the state. In Sacramento County, for example, projects include repaving and adding car pool lanes along Highway 50 and adding car pool lanes along I-5. By 2027, Caltrans plans to repair or replace 17,000 miles of pavement and 500 bridges statewide.

In all, taxes from SB 1 will pay for more than 6,500 local transportation projects. Sacramento County and its cities are getting nearly $40 million in 2018-19. The city of Sacramento received $5 million to add protected bike lanes downtown; $3.3 million to build a multi-use trail between Sutter’s Landing Park and Sacramento State; and $1.7 million to help repave roads in Curtis Park, midtown, south Sacramento and other neighborhoods.

If Proposition 6 passes, Caltrans and local agencies would seek to finish the work underway, but say other projects would be delayed, downsized or canceled altogether.

To stop that from happening, a “no” coalition of business, construction, labor, local government, public safety and other groups has raised more than $26 million to date. The “yes” campaign has raised $4 million, including money from Republicans who are banking on the measure to drive voters to the polls and help John Cox, the Republican running for governor, and GOP members of Congress who are trying to keep their seats.

Opponents may need that cash advantage to overcome frustration with Caltrans.

In late August, proponents filed a complaint after witnesses reported seeing private construction workers in San Diego County handing out campaign flyers against Proposition 6. Caltrans says it doesn’t condone political activity on the job and has reminded employees and private contractors of that. The Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating.

Caltrans is already on a hiring spree with the SB 1 money, adding to a workforce that critics say is already bloated. Despite all those engineers, planners and managers, too often Caltrans is having to redo roadwork under its supervision.

For instance, the agency is replacing 400 concrete slabs on I-5 in Sacramento after two slabs cracked and damaged dozens of vehicles on a section where work had been done as recently as 2011. Last year, a $25 million project – five times the original cost – fixed a botched resurfacing job on Highway 50.

On its biggest project in recent years – the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge that spiraled in cost to $6.5 billion – Caltrans stubbornly denied major corrosion problems for too long. But it has enacted management and other reforms to use on future megaprojects.

In 2014, the Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a scathing report on the inefficient bureaucracy at Caltrans. In response, the agency says its project staffing was at its lowest levels in 20 years when SB 1 was approved last year, and there is a new inspector general to oversee the agency.

So Caltrans is learning from its mistakes. Its problems are not a good enough reason to vote for Proposition 6, a reckless measure that plays politics with California’s future.

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