Soapbox

Roads fix must put real dent in repair backlog

Drivers pass by a sign for repairs on Highway 50 in Sacramento last year. Legislators are in special session discussing how to fund more highway projects.
Drivers pass by a sign for repairs on Highway 50 in Sacramento last year. Legislators are in special session discussing how to fund more highway projects. The Associated Press

California is home to some of the nation’s most deteriorated streets, highways and bridges, with four of the five cities with the worst road conditions in the United States and 55 percent of local bridges requiring rehabilitation or replacement. This disrepair is costing California motorists the most – nearly $762 annually per driver on average, and even more in some areas.

Without adequate funding to maintain the current system, one-quarter of all California’s local streets and roads will be in failed condition in just nine years, and the unfunded backlog would grow by another $21 billion.

Fortunately, Gov. Jerry Brown convened a special session so that the Legislature can address our chronically neglected transportation infrastructure.

Our organizations are part of a broad coalition of cities and counties, businesses, transportation planners and labor unions that are ready to work with legislative leaders on a funding solution, while demanding strict accountability from local and state government over our tax dollars.

We are united behind basic principles that we believe should guide a transportation-funding plan.

First, it must make a significant enough investment to actually make a dent in the problem. It will take $6 billion annually in new revenue, split equally between the state and local governments, to simply repair our existing system. Our coalition supports a “user pay” system in which everyone who stands to benefit contributes a fair share. These measures could include reasonable increases in gasoline and diesel excise taxes and vehicle registration and license fees.

We also believe that any funding package must be inextricably linked to strong safeguards and accountability mechanisms. Foremost, we must ensure that the money is constitutionally guaranteed to go to transportation projects and not diverted for other purposes. Existing transportation revenues – such as truck weight fees and fuel taxes for off-road vehicles – that are currently being diverted into the general fund should be put back into transportation projects.

A portion of diesel tax proceeds and cap-and-trade revenue should also be spent on high-priority goods movement projects that are essential to boosting our economy and job creation, as well as improving air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

To make Caltrans more effective, legislation should provide stronger oversight by the California Transportation Commission and establish an inspector general office to provide accountability. We can reduce administrative costs through efficiency reviews, with all savings to be spent on road improvements.

No one likes to talk about raising taxes. But it’s undeniable that the current funding is insufficient. The longer we wait to address these needs, the worse they become, and the more expensive they are to fix. We need to address our transportation needs this year.

We believe this plan has something for everybody to embrace. We urge legislators to carefully study this fair and accountable solution to help California exit the “worst roads” lists.

Jim Earp is executive consultant for the California Alliance for Jobs. Matt Cate is executive director of the California State Association of Counties. Chris McKenzie is executive director of the League of California Cities.

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