Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: A new tax is coming. The question is which one and when

Californians of a certain age love their Mustangs, as Ford Motor Co. surely understood when it unveiled the 50-year anniversary edition of the iconic muscle car this week.

The sleek design speaks of power and speed, and will be marketed as an alternative to European imports. The new Mustang could become a classic, as its predecessors were. There is, however, a notable difference. California’s roads are far worse than when the first Mustangs hit the market.

In the middle 1960s, Californians drove 100 billion vehicle miles per year. After dipping during the recession, the numbers are up again, from 326.9 billion in 2011 to 331 billion in 2012 to an estimated 331.9 billion this year.

Gasoline consumption, however, is declining, a testament to fuel efficiency. After a high of 15.9 billion gallons in 2004, consumption will fall to 14.5 billion gallons this year. By 2020, consumption will be at levels from the late 1990s.

That’s good for the environment and consumers’ pocketbooks, but not for road maintenance. Caltrans relies on the excise tax on gasoline to fund road maintenance and rehabilitation. That source erodes as gas mileage increases, and falls far short of the need.

Caltrans will spend about $3.3 billion on maintenance and rehabilitation this year. The department estimates it should be spending $7.9 billion just to keep up with needs of the current system.

A proposed initiative would raise the vehicle license fee to help pay for roads. Another solution might to be charge drivers based on the number of miles they drive.

Another solution would be to get people out of their cars. Gov. Jerry Brown’s concept of building a high-speed rail would help, as would reliable mass transit, though the labor dispute at the Bay Area Rapid Transit system undermines public confidence in transit systems.

Californians’ love of and reliance on cars won’t end any time soon, as Ford’s introduction of the new Mustang shows. But California lawmakers and motorists need to confront the reality. A new tax is coming. The question is which one and when.