The term “pothole politics” usually refers to a problem that is so hyperlocal only a few people care about it.
But when I testify Thursday about potholes before a special session of the Legislature, I’ll be clear: The poor condition of our road network is a statewide problem. And our local streets, roads and bridges are in dire need. Collectively, they get a score of 66 out of 100 – a “D.”
According to a report put together by the engineers who manage our local streets and roads, only 7 out of 58 counties and their cities score better than 70 on the Pavement Condition Index. Any score below 70 is considered “at risk” and below 50 is considered to be in “poor” condition. Sacramento County scores a 62, Yolo a 60 and El Dorado a 63. Amador County scores 33 – the lowest in the state.
My own Stanislaus County scores a 55. For example, the Seventh Street Bridge in Modesto is so badly in need of repair that school buses and heavy trucks can’t use it anymore.
So I am pleased that the governor called this special session to deal with the $79 billion backlog of maintenance and repairs for local streets, roads and bridges and the $59 billion for the state highway system over the next decade.
There are a few primary reasons we got so far behind in maintenance. The gasoline tax that provides most of the revenue has not been increased since 1994. In those 21 years, costs for concrete, steel and labor have all gone up. Cars and trucks have become more efficient, so people are driving the same number of miles and paying less in gas tax.
And then the recession hit. State and local budgets suffered and some highway money was diverted to pay off transportation bonds.
The longer we wait, the higher the price tag is going to be. If we don’t start addressing the local backlog this year, maintenance needs will grow by another $11 billion over the next five years.
The time to act is now. The harder question is: Where does the money come from to start making the repairs?
There are already ideas on the table in both houses and on both sides of the aisle, and the governor may have his own ideas. No one likes to pay more taxes, but bad roads increase maintenance costs for vehicles.
To county officials, what makes sense are small increases in several taxes and fees that affect all of us. What’s most important is that any new revenue is allocated fairly between the state and local governments. Most people don’t know where a local road ends and a state highway starts, but the systems are interdependent. They both have to be fixed.
So I’m going to ask the Legislature to spread the pain a little bit, and to start now because it’ll hurt a lot worse if we wait. I’m going to ask them to allocate the revenue without any more red tape. Cities and counties know where the local problems are, and there is already plenty of oversight to make sure we spend the money wisely. And finally I’m going to tell them that most Californians will support this as long as the money really is spent fixing the highways, roads and bridges we all use. That’s what I call pothole politics.
Vito Chiesa, a Stanislaus County supervisor, is president of the California State Association of Counties.