By Leanna Sweha
The Legislature ended its two-year general session last week without a solution to the roads crisis. Although the special legislative session on transportation funding runs until the end of November, it’s questionable whether lawmakers will return to Sacramento in an election year.
So, why can’t lawmakers come to an agreement? And what does the delay mean for our region?
The main sticking point is the state’s gas tax, which has not been raised since 1994 and is not indexed to inflation. It funds about three-fourths of state highway maintenance and repair, as well as a portion of local streets and roads. Revenues have decreased significantly, especially with increases in fuel efficiency, lower gas prices, and an increase in electric vehicles.
Governor Brown and Democrats favor solutions that include a gas tax increase, which requires a 2/3 vote and therefore buy-in from Republicans. Republicans believe a tax hike is not necessary.
Governor Brown last year proposed an increase of 6 cents per gallon, with CEQA streamlining and CalTrans reforms, among other ideas. Democrats introduced special session bills with these ideas that passed their house of origin but then stalled out because of differences with Republicans.
Assembly Republicans introduced several special session bills last fall to bridge the funding gap. Their plan includes using cap and trade revenues from fuels, an annual $1 billion General Fund allocation, and savings from CalTrans workforce reductions. They also proposed greater oversight of CalTrans and CEQA exemptions like those enacted for the Kings arena.
On August 18, Democrats introduced joint comprehensive legislation. The Beall-Frazier plan includes CEQA exemptions for existing roadway projects, greater oversight of CalTrans, a new annual $165 registration fee for zero-emission vehicles, and incentives for counties to pass their own sales tax to fund transportation. It also raises the gas tax by 17 cents per gallon – more than double what Governor Brown had proposed.
Assembly Republicans – through their online agent #Dave in Traffic – did not respond favorably:
“Dave here. Thrilled to hear that 429 days after the Transportation Special Session was called, and 415 days after @AssemblyGOP unveiled their comprehensive transportation plan, two out of 78 Capitol Democrats have taken the initiative to introduce a transportation plan. But seriously, $6 billion in new taxes!? That’s more unbearable than this traffic I’m sitting in!”
There is a $57 billion highway maintenance backlog and a $78 billion local funding shortfall. Yolo County recently reported a roads maintenance liability of over $375 million. In May, the California Transportation Commission announced road project cuts of $754 million and delays of another $755 million. The cuts included several local projects.
The cost to repair roads will grow exponentially as their condition worsens. A dollar spent on regular maintenance saves multiples of dollars needed for major rehabilitation.
The Governor and legislative leaders pushed hard to pass bills to expand climate change laws and to spend cap and trade revenues (although nothing went to road repair). We need the Governor and lawmakers to put this kind of energy into a compromise solution to fix our roads as soon as possible.