I served this past year as chair of the California Transportation Commission, which is responsible for allocating funds for highway construction, passenger rail and transit improvements, active transportation such as walking and biking and a host of other mobility projects.
A variety of financial indicators last month showed that the excise tax portion of the gas tax, which funds the State Transportation Improvement Program, was likely to remain flat or decline in the immediate future. Last week, CTC announced its decision to “deprogram” three-quarters of a billion dollars in projects. Affected projects in Orange County may include improvements to I-5, I-405 and CA-57, hundreds more throughout the state.
Following this decision, CTC urged the Legislature to make funding and maintaining safe and effective infrastructure a top priority, in addition to reforms in system management by Caltrans. Otherwise, even more project cuts will come. Gov. Jerry Brown, state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, and Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, have three separate revenue and reform proposals for consideration. Republican leaders have significant reform proposals as well. Last year, after decades of delay, a divided Congress finally came together on a plan for federal transportation funding and reforms. If Congress could do it, so can the state Legislature.
With no adjustments for inflation in the past two decades, increased costs, increased fuel efficiency in new cars and a declining excise tax, the funds no longer cover today’s repairs and upkeep, let alone adding new capacity. Alternative fuel vehicles using California roads are subsidized by your gas taxes. A fair, short-term solution is needed now.
But a longer-term vision also is needed. For decades, free-market think tanks like Reason Foundation have urged the transformation of the system into one based upon user fees and tolls. California has begun to explore just that – a modern solution where everyone pays only for what they use with a per-mile fee. Senate Bill 1077 authorized a pilot project that would replace – not add to – the gas tax.
Citizen leaders like CTC commissioner and former San Diego Councilman Jim Madaffer, Orange County Board of Supervisors Chair Lisa Bartlett, Steve Finnegan of the Auto Club, privacy experts, social equity advocates, truckers and others formed a technical advisory committee with rules to protect privacy and assure fairness in testing this new system. We now are looking for 5,000 volunteers – cars and trucks, from rural to urban – gathering data over a 9-month field trial to determine challenges and opportunities. The data will then be analyzed and reviewed by CTC, which will make a recommendation to the Legislature in December 2017. Your input on this project will be invaluable to improving it or scrapping it.
I’ve signed up to be a test volunteer. Join me. Check out www.CaliforniaRoadChargePilot.com for details.