Erika D. Smith

Want to convince California voters to keep the gas tax? This is the wrong way to do it

By now, it’s clear that the backers of Gov. Jerry Brown’s gas tax have a problem. It’s just not the problem they think it is.

Sure, the latest polls show that a majority of California voters plan to support Proposition 6, the Republican ploy of a ballot measure that would repeal the increase of 12 cents per gallon on gasoline and 20 cents per gallon on diesel. If left intact, that tax increase, along with a new fee on vehicle registration, would raise more than $5 billion a year for long-delayed repairs of crumbling roads and bridges, and to improve mass transit.

That’s a revenue stream that construction companies and unions don’t want to give up. California’s broader business community doesn’t want to forfeit it either because safer roads and bridges make it easier for people to drive to work and for goods to be easily trucked around the state.

And so, they’ve come up with a multi-million dollar campaign, wrapped around the slogan, “Stop the Attack on Bridge & Road Safety!”

But this is their problem: They’re missing the point.

As much as voters on both sides of the political aisle object to the gas tax because of the need to fork over additional money, their bigger objection is about how that money will be spent. Why would anyone agree to raise his or her own taxes for road construction when so many of the projects that are already underway seem to be the very picture of waste, inefficiency, sloppiness and laziness?

These were my thoughts while sitting in standstill traffic last Sunday afternoon in the shadow of Mt. Shasta. For miles and what seemed like hours, cars and trucks inched along one lane of I-5 in bumper-to-bumper traffic because the other lanes had been shut down for construction.

That was bad. What was worse was that workers had also blocked off most of the entrance and exit ramps. And even though I managed to get off the highway at one point, I quickly realized that many of the side streets were closed off, too, rendering the posted detours absolutely useless.

Why would anyone want to pay more just to be stuck, unnecessarily, in this kind of traffic?

And why would anyone want their tax dollars to go toward hiring more of the workers who drop construction barrels in a zig-zag pattern on I-80 instead of in a straight line? Or the workers who force traffic to merge into one lane in a matter of feet with little to no signs to yield?

Maybe I’m just a snob. I grew up in the Midwest, where “summer” was synonymous with “road construction.” There’s not much California can learn from Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, but those states could teach a master’s level course on how to set up orange barrels properly and how to close lanes without confusing drivers.

California voters are rightfully upset that previous taxes meant for road repairs have gone toward other uses and so, going forward, want to know that their money is being spent wisely. And that includes seeing that construction projects are being done efficiently.

Talking about an “attack on bridge and road safety” isn’t the way to do any of that.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, Erika_D_Smith.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee