Why It's So Hard to Fix California Freeways

After years of neglect, state officials estimate it will cost $59 billion to fix the state's crumbling roads and freeways.
by | July 1, 2015 AT 6:10 PM

By Chris Megerian

Every day, California drivers navigate an obstacle course of potholes and cracked pavement, and a wrong turn of the wheel can send them limping to a mechanic. Maintenance crews can't keep up.

After years of neglect, state officials estimate it will cost $59 billion to fix the now-crumbling roads and freeways that Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown championed more than five decades ago. And it's up to his son, Gov. Jerry Brown, to find the money.

Until now, Brown has focused on building what he hopes will be his own transportation legacy: a $68 billion bullet train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But the governor recently called a special legislative session to focus lawmakers' attention on the problems with roads, and a hearing is scheduled for Thursday. The result could be new fees and taxes for drivers _ a politically charged scenario in a state with a celebrated romance with the automobile.

The governor acknowledged recently that new costs could be controversial. "But we do need more money," Brown said, "and we've got to get it from somewhere."

Despite the political risks, there's potential for consensus in the Capitol. Groups that are normally at odds _ Democrats and Republicans, unions and businesses _ say they're determined to work with the governor to find a solution.

"Everyone is trying to keep an open mind," said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, which represents most of the state's largest corporations.

As Brown considers the future of California's roads, he faces a political and financial landscape much different from the one his father inhabited. When Pat Brown was governor in the 1950s and '60s, the state was benefiting from a flood of money from Washington for new roads for a growing number of Californians.

Now the federal fund for transportation improvements is going broke at the same time revenue from the state gas tax, California's primary method of paying for road repairs, has waned with more fuel-efficient cars. "Jerry has to address a tougher issue politically," said Ethan Rarick, director of the Robert T. Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service at the University of California, Berkeley.

Rather than rely on Washington to pony up, Brown may hope to draw new revenue from his constituents.

He hasn't detailed any plans, and the combination of cars and taxes has been politically treacherous in the past. After former Gov. Gray Davis increased the vehicle license fee to help plug a budget deficit, Arnold Schwarzenegger seized on the issue for his successful campaign in the 2003 recall election.

This year, a push to fix the pocked roads that bedevil drivers could make new revenue more politically palatable.

Tax-averse organizations such as the California Business Roundtable and the state Chamber of Commerce said they would consider proposals from Democratic lawmakers to generate billions of dollars annually with new fees and higher levies on gasoline.

"As long as the money goes to transportation," Lapsley said, business interests will listen.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, a Democrat, proposed a fee that would be roughly $50 a year for most drivers. Democratic state Sen. James Beall Jr. wants a mix of revenue sources, including a 10-cent hike in the gas tax, higher registration fees and a gradual increase in the vehicle license fee.

Raising new revenue would require help from Republicans, because it needs a two-thirds vote in the Legislature. GOP lawmakers are reluctant to support increases, expressing disappointment that Democrats didn't make room for new transportation funding in the budget that Brown signed last week.

"It's been an important priority that's largely been ignored by the majority party," Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen said. "That needs to end."

Republicans are pushing other sources of funding including the state's cap-and-trade program, which charges fees to polluters. Because the program applies to transportation fuel, said Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, the money should be used for roads.

"If it's going to be collected there, it ought to be spent there," Huff said.

Cap-and-trade funds are required by law to be spent on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and Huff said improving road conditions can increase fuel efficiency.

The Republicans' proposal could conflict with Brown's goals for the money, which include programs that could reduce driving _ building the bullet train and supporting affordable housing near mass transit.

Raising the gas tax may seem like a straightforward solution. But that dwindling resource generates $5.7 billion less than what's needed annually, according to the Brown administration.

And gas taxes push much of the burden of paying for road repairs onto poorer Californians, said Cesar Diaz, legislative and political director at the State Building and Construction Trades Council, a labor group. "Gas taxes are just punishing those who have older cars," Diaz said.

Officials are exploring a different option: taxing drivers based on miles traveled instead of gasoline pumped.

But a pilot program, which could involve installing electronic devices in cars to track mileage, is not scheduled to begin until 2017. Until then, Brown has made it clear that he's open to new fees or taxes.

"Everything is on the table," he said when he announced the special legislative session. "I don't know if you've seen my table. It's a very big table."

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times