“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.”
– John F. Kennedy
“Indecision may or may not be my problem.”
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– Jimmy Buffett
With these two quotes framing this issue, we are imploring the California Legislature to fix the crumbling roads, bridges and highways we all rely on.
The Legislature’s “special session” on transportation is more than a year old. Action to deliver more revenue and ensure it will be wisely spent fixing our roads is long overdue. Any further indecision is, in fact, deciding to waste taxpayer money, put motorists at risk, drive more companies out of business and more jobs out of state.
The backlog of deferred maintenance for the state highway system is approaching $60 billion over 10 years. For local streets and roads it is almost $80 billion more over the same time frame. The longer we delay, the more our roads and bridges crumble, and the more it will cost to fix them. Motorists already pay more than $700 per year in vehicle maintenance costs due to the poor condition of our roads. But, let’s back up a little bit. How did we get here?
Simply put, most of the revenue for transportation infrastructure has come from taxes on fuel that have been declining for many reasons. Better fuel efficiency and a growing number of alternative-fueled vehicles are partly to blame, but the gasoline tax has not been increased since 1994. Accounting for inflation, a dollar from 1994 now buys about 55 cents worth of project work. During the recession, state money was redirected to other priorities and deferred road maintenance kept adding up.
For the past two years our Fix Our Roads coalition – local government leaders, businesses, labor and transportation groups – has been advocating for relatively small incremental increases to several fees and taxes to generate the revenue needed to start fixing our infrastructure. We also embrace reforms at Caltrans and streamlining the permitting and project funding processes. These proposals have been included in various bills in the Legislature that so far have not been acted on.
Because of that indecision, more than $750 million in projects needed for safer, more efficient roads have already been canceled. California companies have gone bankrupt and jobs have been lost. When we do finally have the money to spend on projects, more of it might have to go to out-of-state companies because California has lost so much of the in-state capacity to do this kind of work.
So where does that leave us? Our poorly maintained streets, roads and bridges are well-documented and not in dispute. There are solutions at hand that deliver the needed revenue with as little impact on taxpayers as possible and that include some common-sense reforms.
The Legislature should include these concepts in a bill and pass it before it adjourns for the year at the end of this month.
Our coalition will continue to meet with legislators urging them to act, and act quickly. The longer they wait, the higher the price tag will be. Indecision is, in fact, a decision not to act. In this case, that will cost jobs, decrease safety and impact the economy. That’s unconscionable.
Matt Cate is executive director of California State Association of Counties. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris McKenzie is executive director of the League of California Cities. Contact him at email@example.com. Michael Quigley is executive director of California Alliance for Jobs. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.