Local Government
Commentary: Road Funds as Political Football

Commentary: Road Funds as Political Football

By Joel Fox.

Too much traffic, too many potholes–California road conditions stink. While some money is in place to deal with the roads both federal and state authorities weaponize taxpayer funds intended to fix the roads to try and bend other government entities to their will. The losers are taxpayers and suffering commuters.

The latest episode is the Environmental Protection Agency threatening to withhold federal highway funds if California doesn’t clean up its air.

Governor Gavin Newsom said the move by the EPA was “pure retaliation” by the federal government for California cutting its own deal with automakers on mileage limits. There’s probably truth in that, but the fact remains California could be denied highway funds.

Newsom said, “While the White House tries to bully us and concoct new ways to make our air dirtier, California is defending our state’s clean air laws from President Trump’s attacks.”

What catches the eye is Newsom’s reference to “bullying” by the federal government to withhold transportation funds to bring the state into line. Isn’t that what Governor Newsom threatened to do in his first week in office when he said he was going to withhold gas tax money from local governments that didn’t build enough housing?

Should anyone be surprised that transportation funds have become a political football? Money spent on the roads should be a non-partisan issue but it is seized upon to make political points. Money is the chief bargaining chip in governmental disputes so when the federal government wants the state to toe a line it threatens to withhold transportation money. The state uses the same stick against local government.

Meanwhile, California remains at the bottom of many lists dealing with road conditions and traffic. The Reason Foundation annual survey of roads placed California 42nd in the nation. The report said over half of urban Interstate mileage in poor condition is in just eight states; and nearly half of rural primary mileage in poor condition is just from eight states. Only California and Texas are on both lists.

Wallethub placed California 47th in a list of Best & Worst States to Drive In. U.S. News and World Report names Los Angeles as the worst traffic city in the nation and San Francisco third.

You get the picture. California can use the money to improve roads instead of seeing the money leveraged to satisfying a different agenda or simply win a political duel.

There is also the argument made by Assembly and Senate Republicans in California that transportation funds are misspent, as the following from a joint statement of Assembly and Senate Republicans reveals, issued at the time that the gas tax increase that eventually became law was introduced: “We can fix our roads and bridges by simply ensuring that the billions of dollars that drivers are already paying in transportation fees and taxes are actually used for transportation purposes, rather than being swept into the state’s general fund.”

But for now we’ll focus on higher governments bullying—to use the governor’s term—lower governments to do its bidding. This is a rebuke to both the feds and the state for using taxpayer money as a weapon to fight political battles while the taxpayers and commuters suffer.

Originally posted at Fox and Hounds.

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