The stretch of California Highway 1 that winds through Big Sur is considered by some to be the greatest drive in the world. Popular Mechanics praises the section between San Simeon and Carmel “for its staggering views over perilous cliffs, revealing the Pacific Ocean’s whitecaps as they rush past immense dark rocks.”
While the scenery off many of California’s roads is extraordinary, the roads themselves can yield an altogether unpleasant experience. They are among the worst in the country.
The Reason Foundation ranks California roads 42nd in the nation in its 22nd Annual Highway Report.
“California ranks … 45th in rural interstate pavement condition, 48th in urban interstate pavement condition, and 48th in urbanized area congestion,” the study says, and its rural arterial pavement condition is 29th.
Caltrans itself has said that 15 percent of the 50,000 miles of state highways is “distressed” while another 25 percent needs “corrective maintenance.” Meanwhile, a state Senate committee found last year that 68 percent of California roads are in “poor” or “mediocre” condition.
All isn’t quite lost on our roads, though. Reason says California is at the top in deficient bridges and has the 10th best fatality rate. Overall, the state has improved three notches from 45th in Reason’s 21st report and five from its 47th position the year before.
But a state that’s long prided itself on its roads and highway system – and has the fourth-highest retail gasoline tax burden in the nation, if not the highest – should be closer to the top than the bottom, where it’s been buried in the rankings since 2000.
Dodging car-swallowing potholes and bouncing over rough patches is more than a comfort issue. Shoddy roads exact a financial toll, as well. According to the Road Information Program, a national transportation research group, poor roads cost California drivers more than $53 billion a year. About half of that cost is due to excessive congestion caused by lousy road conditions, while the other half is due to safety issues and vehicle operating expenses and repairs. The San Jose Mercury News reported last year that a family’s car was totaled after it hit a pothole near Sacramento so hard that its airbags inflated.
There are unseen costs, as well, because of lost economic opportunities. The Road Information Program says that “an efficient, safe and well-maintained transportation system provides economic and social benefits by affording individuals access to employment, housing, health care, education, goods and services, recreation, (and) entertainment. It also provides businesses with access to suppliers, markets and employees, all critical to a business’ level of productivity and ability to expand.”
Hiking fuel taxes isn’t the answer. But actually using the revenue they produce could be.
Though Californians pay some of the highest fuel taxes nationwide – the average family pays at least $1,000 a year, roughly $275 more than the average U.S. household – much of those funds aren’t spent on roads. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association says that every year the state moves between $100 million and $5 billion from fuel taxes to the General Fund. The diesel sales tax, which generates nearly a half billion a year, has been diverted entirely to mass transit and rail programs.
Then there is the “hidden” tax levied by the California Air Resources Board that is imposed on oil companies, then passed on to motorists. Patricia Bates, a Republican from Laguna Niguel who sits on the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, says this tax “is the biggest ongoing funding source for the high-speed rail boondoggle, a project that will cost at least $64 billion and will burden future generations of taxpayers.”
Senate Republican Leader Jean Fuller has said, quite correctly, that “we can go a long way toward addressing California’s infrastructure problems if we use the money (from fuel taxes) for what it was originally intended for – transportation projects.”
This session, Assembly Republicans proposed a 9-point plan to use these dollars as was intended – to fund and fix California’s roads. Despite saying roads was a top priority, legislative Democrats ignored the GOP plan. The Legislature adjourned for the year without taking action, though there are rumors that they will reconvene for a transportation special session after the election.
Should those funds not make it all the way, the state ought to dip into the general fund to repair California’s roads. There are piles of money going to programs that are unnecessary or redundant. Put the dollars to a better use.