During Jerry Brown’s first governorship more than three decades ago, no political issue burned more hotly in California than transportation, particularly a marked slowdown in highway construction.
Critics accused Brown and his transportation director, Adriana Gianturco, of an anti-highway bias. A pro-highway Legislature eventually passed a new transportation planning bill aimed at diluting the administration’s authority to decide which projects would be built and when.
However, no successor to Brown significantly increased highway construction. Meanwhile, maintenance of aging highways gobbled up more and more gasoline tax money, which became a stagnant source of revenue as cars became more efficient and used less fuel per mile.
Out of sheer frustration, local governments began asking their voters for sales tax hikes to finance highway construction.
Furthermore, the state turned to general obligation bonds to finance what projects it did build, rather than increase gas taxes – part of a larger partisan stalemate in the Capitol over taxes.
The effect was that the gas tax and other forms of making users pay, such as tolls, license fees and transit fare boxes, bore a steadily decreasing portion of the costs of providing transportation, as a new report from the Tax Foundation underscores.
California has the nation’s third-highest fuel tax, more than 50 cents a gallon, but is among the lowest states in having motorists and other transportation users pay for their services through fees and taxes.
In fact, the organization calculated, California’s users pay for less than a third of building and maintaining streets, roads, highways and transit services.
The rest of the transportation burden is being borne by diversions of other revenue, such as those local sales taxes paid by everyone who buys retail goods, the state’s general fund that’s been tapped to service transportation bonds, city and county property taxes, federal grants and so forth.
Or to put it another way, transportation has been crowding out other claims on the public purse.
Brown has taken a small step toward restoring the user-pays principle by tapping transportation revenue to service transportation bonds. But that, while a rational change, doesn’t do anything to ease the growing backlog of much-needed projects. The state Transportation Commission says California has $538.1 billion in transportation needs. Brown’s Transportation Agency will soon convene a working group to refine the commission’s assessment and “explore long-term, pay-as-you-go funding options.”
It’s high time that real transportation needs – not just the fanciful bullet train – move to the front of the political agenda again. Nothing, really, is more important to the state’s economic and social future.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.