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California Has a New Infrastructure Advocate

Former Caltrans Director Will Kempton is determined to help the Golden State generate billions of dollars for needed infrastructure improvements.

Will Kempton spent five years heading the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) under the leadership of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and after he left that job he spent another four leading the Orange County Transportation Authority, leaving earlier this year. In those positions, Kempton was able to emphasize the needs of the state and county transportation systems. But as a government employee, he couldn't explicitly advocate for the solutions. That's not the case anymore.

Earlier this year, Kempton was named executive director of Transportation California, which advocates for increased infrastructure investment. This year half-a-dozen states enacted big changes to their transportation taxes that generated billions of dollars desperately needed for infrastructure improvements. Thanks to Kempton, California could become the next.

Kempton and his group are backing a ballot initiative to shore up transportation funding in the Golden State. Last month, Transportation California filed paperwork with the state's attorney general for the "California Road Repairs Act of 2014." Today, Californians pay an annual license fee of 0.65 percent of their car's value. The proposed initiative would gradually phase in an additional 1 percent fee on top of the existing 0.65 percent. The result, Kempton says, would be about $3 billion in extra money every year for transportation.

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The push couldn't come at a more important time: A 2011 Caltrans study shows just how hard up the agency is for funding. It estimated the 10-year cost of preserving, managing and expanding the state's transportation network at $536 billion. The state is projected to take in only $242 billion in revenue during that time. That's in part due to the fact that Proposition 1B, which was approved by voters in 2006 and authorized $20 billion in bonds for transportation projects, is running out. And like other states that rely heavily on the gas tax, the increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles means gas taxes can't generate the volume of funding they once did.

"California is experiencing a precipitous decline in available revenues," Kempton says. "We spent all the capital dollars associated with the [Proposition 1B] program. There's no more bond money flowing into the system, and that's creating a real problem for us."

Transportation California's plan to hike license fees is under review by the attorney general's office, which will likely decide in January on the official title and summary of the initiative that could appear on ballots. At that point, Transportation California will gauge reactions from likely voters through polling and focus groups, among other things. If the message resonates, it will begin the process of collecting the signatures needed to put the plan on the November 2015 ballot. Kempton says the group would likely need to collect about a million signatures by May to meet the threshold.

Kempton's approach is different from that of other states that have boosted transportation revenue in recent years. Those states have mainly relied on tweaks to retail and wholesale gas taxes. But Kempton -- like many transportation experts -- says the gas tax is no longer reliable. There's also a political reason for focusing on the license fees. Gas taxes are more unpopular than other taxes and fees. "For whatever reason, the public doesn't like the gas tax," he says, noting that other methods of generating revenue for transportation have been more palatable. Transportation California's polling confirms that an increase in the vehicle license fees would gain more traction with voters than a gas-tax hike or a vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) fee. (Kempton says a VMT fee may be a long-term solution but isn't politically viable today.)

Transportation California opted to pursue the plan via the ballot process, as opposed to pushing for legislation, because of California's controversial policy of requiring a two-thirds vote by state lawmakers. Moreover, Gov. Jerry Brown has signaled that he wants to see proposed tax increases decided by voters, not state lawmakers.

The proposed ballot measure specifically designates money for improvements to the existing transportation system rather than for big new projects. That's because Kempton's group discovered through polling that voters favor a fix-it-first approach to using transportation revenue. "People recognize you have to take care of your house, and the same thing is true of the existing transportation system," he says. "I think our system isn't in very good shape."

Indeed, a 2009 report from TRIP, a nonprofit transportation research group, estimated that Californians spend an average of $600 annually on extra car costs as a result of driving on rough roads. That's a message Kempton says will likely resonate with voters if the group does decide to make the push for more funding.

The proposal also is politically savvy in that it designated funding to a variety of stakeholders: 40 percent to state highways, 25 percent to cities, 25 percent to counties and 10 percent for transit. In other words, there's something for everybody. Kiana Buss, a legislative representative handling transportation issues for the California State Association of Counties, says her organization doesn't have an official position on Transportation California's plan yet. But it has been in discussions with Kempton's organization about the possible initiative.

Still, the county association has vocally called for new revenue for transportation. A 2012 assessment of city and county transportation infrastructure projects an $82 billion funding shortfall over the next decade to bring the system up to date.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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