Four years ago, Will Kempton, then executive director of Transportation California and a former Caltrans director, said the state’s roads were “the worst I have seen.”
A few months later, the state began collecting revenue from a $52 billion, 10-year fuel tax hike to raise enough revenue to bring up to date one of the most broken street-and-highway systems in the country.
The reality, however, hasn’t matched up with the promises.
Progress in making repairs, the Los Angeles Times reports, is “lagging.” Worse, “officials now say the funding is sufficient only to complete less than half of the work needed.”
Not even Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “$2 billion shot of new money” from his surplus-filled May budget revision for bridge and road repair will be sufficient to catch up to the needs. Nor will the next installment of Senate Bill 1’s tax increases, a 5.1 cents-a-gallon levy arriving on July 1.
How can this be?
According to the Times, Sacramento has allocated about $16 billion from 2017’s Senate Bill 1 for roads and highways. Yet “state officials say that much more money is needed to address shortcomings in the transportation system. Caltrans estimates it will need $122.9 billion over 10 years ‘to maintain the existing assets’ due in part to increasing costs and the age of the infrastructure.”
It would be helpful if policymakers didn’t have a habit of diverting revenues for road work to unrelated projects. But transportation funds are as politicized as any of the dollars funneled through Sacramento. For instance, it took the state only a matter of months after SB1 was passed and signed to move motor fuel tax revenues to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state Department of Parks and Recreation, the General Fund, and local law enforcement.
Revenues also end up in political pits that have no bottom. The state “devotes a greater share of its transportation funds to public transit than most other states,” says George Mazur, a Davis-based principal of the transportation planning firm Cambridge Systematics.
Newsom has also used the money from higher fuel taxes as political leverage. Two years ago, his office announced that revenues generated by SB1 “may be withheld from any jurisdiction that does not have a compliant housing element and has not zoned and entitled for its updated annual housing goals.”