Fixing our roads requires both reforms and revenue
The California Legislature returned to Sacramento last week with a “to do list” that includes a special session called by Gov. Jerry Brown to address the growing road repair and maintenance backlog – ranked second worse in the country, according to some. The Register’s Aug. 11 editorial, “Tap brakes on urge to raise gas taxes,” urged legislators to focus solely on reforms.
State Republican leaders have offered a number of reform ideas, while state Democratic leaders are looking at revenue. However, the Orange County Business Council is part of a broad coalition of businesses, local governments, labor, transportation advocates and others that have laid out a package of ideas we contend should guide both parties and the governor to come together in these discussions: Revenue and reforms are inextricably linked – one cannot be separated from the other.
Orange County has seen the success of its own local half-cent sales tax – Measure M – not only in the Orange County Transportation Authority’s development of new freeway capacity, improvements to pavement, synchronization of traffic lights and environmental protections, among many other benefits – but also in its accountability to voters. Promises that were made were kept.
In Sacramento, however, reforms are necessary to increase public confidence that funding at the state level actually goes to transportation as promised. For example, voters expected $1 billion in truck weight fees to be used for mobility improvements, yet funds were diverted in the Great Recession. Now the state has a budget surplus, and it is time to return those funds to transportation.
We also must establish performance and accountability criteria, take steps to streamline project delivery, and increase Caltrans effectiveness through stronger oversight and efficiency reviews that reduce administrative costs. All savings from these accountability reforms should be directed to road improvements.
When coupled with accountability, we support a reasonable revenue package to help us catch up. Reforms alone won’t solve the daunting backlog of deferred maintenance and repairs.
While we sympathize with those who don’t like the notion of paying more, the unfortunate reality is that there is no free lunch. Current transportation funding has stagnated at 1994 levels. Anyone with a job knows they could not survive on the same paycheck they made two decades ago. Neither can California’s transportation system.
There are success stories from recent state funding. For example, in 2006 when voters entrusted $12 billion in Prop. 1B bond funds to the California Transportation Commission, they were expeditiously allocated to improve roads, highways, bridges, transit and rail systems throughout California – on time and on budget – during the worst recession in 80 years, when it was needed most to create jobs.
In fact, that $12 billion was stretched to deliver $37 billion in statewide improvements and created over 500,000 jobs during eight years.
But bond funds are gone, state gas tax revenue is declining and fuel efficiency is increasing. Without new state funding, pressure is put on our own local Measure M to deliver far more than what it was designed to cover. A thoughtful, new funding package would go a long way to complement Measure M as part of a statewide system. In fact, a 2014 survey of local streets and roads found that Orange County needs more than $4.8 billion to bring our city and county streets up to par – little of which is covered by Measure M.
We support an equitable user-pays solution where drivers who benefit from the system contribute to maintaining it. We should raise money across a range of options, so that no motorist is asked to pay too much from any one source. And because the system is interconnected, any new revenues should be split equally between state and local projects.
Coming to an agreement won’t be easy, but there are few issues that more universally impact people in our region. Clearly, economic success cannot occur without the effective movement of people and goods. Congested highways rob us of time with our families and erode our quality of life.
The longer we wait to repair our roads, the more expensive the problem becomes on so many levels.
Reforms plus revenue: co-equal goals for the special session and a recipe for success in state mobility.