California can’t wait any longer to fix roads, bridges

A bridge on Interstate 10 in Southern California collapsed during a major storm late Sunday, blocking all traffic on one of the major highways connecting California and Arizona.
A bridge on Interstate 10 in Southern California collapsed during a major storm late Sunday, blocking all traffic on one of the major highways connecting California and Arizona. Associated Press

Nothing worth doing is easy.

Were it politically easy to invest sufficiently in transportation infrastructure, Congress would have already enacted a multi-year funding plan to make the Highway Trust Fund solvent, and to repair the nation’s crumbling streets, highways, transit systems and bridges.

Instead, Congress has passed numerous continuing resolutions to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, California’s gas tax has not increased since the passage of Proposition 111 in 1990 – 25 years ago. This inaction has left our transportation system in a state of disrepair. Without stable, user-based funding dedicated to transportation, the backlog of needed repairs to highways, bridges and other vital transportation assets grows ever greater.

With $8 billion in annual highway repair needs and current gas tax revenue of $2.3 billion, the state has a shortfall of $5.7 billion annually. Some 564 bridges are in distressed condition and many others do not meet modern standards for weight, clearance or seismic safety; nearly 40 percent of culverts must be repaired or replaced. In addition, 41 percent of California’s pavement is distressed or needs serious maintenance, ranking among the worst in the nation. Pothole repair, tree trimming, and litter and graffiti removal all get failing grades. None of this is acceptable.

Doing nothing further jeopardizes the reliability of the state’s trillion-dollar transportation system, the safety of the traveling public and the state’s continued economic expansion. We cannot afford to wait for Congress to act any longer.

California can join 11 other states that since 2013 have enacted new, user-based funding to fix transportation problems. That users help pay for highway upkeep is the premise of transportation infrastructure funding. Returning to that fundamental concept would help eliminate the deferred maintenance backlog and allow for smart, strategic investments in vital transportation assets – including the state’s trade corridors – that help secure our economic future.

In 2006, the state dedicated public funds to improving trade corridors. The one-time investment of $2 billion was leveraged with local and private funds for an $8 billion program consisting of 87 projects across California. The program untangled the freight railroad knot known as the Colton Crossing in the Inland Empire, improved San Diego highways to strengthen commerce between California and Mexico and is building a new Gerald Desmond Bridge in Los Angeles.

Imagine how an ongoing commitment to improving trade corridors – including better efficiency and more sustainable practices – would pay even more economic and environmental dividends to California for years to come.

New, dedicated investment can restore our roadway pavement, fill thousands of potholes, upgrade hundreds of bridges and avoid spending far greater sums on bigger problems in the future. The Legislature is considering raising the vehicle fee, indexing the gas tax to inflation and increasing the diesel tax among several options to improve our transportation system. Lawmakers are right to develop an investment package including new, sustainable, user-based funding so California can preserve its vital infrastructure.

Of course, any new transportation investment must include enhanced monitoring and reporting requirements to make sure the projects are completed on time and efficiently. To start, Caltrans should report its progress to the California Transportation Commission, the Legislature and the public. Accountability matters.

Now that Gov. Jerry Brown has called a special session of the Legislature, Democrats and Republicans have an opportunity to join together and invest in California’s transportation infrastructure – something all sides agree is necessary. This won’t be easy, but it is well worth doing.

Brian Kelly is secretary of the California State Transportation Agency.