By Will Kempton, Executive Director of Transportation California and Former Director of CalTrans.
Jon Coupal’s recent argument against raising transportation fees or taxes (Profligate Waste Negates Justification for Transportation Tax Hike relies on an apparent premise that since existing transportation revenues are being misspent and/or wasted, repairing our transportation infrastructure isn’t justified. I suspect the real reason has more to do with a no new taxes philosophy, but I question the logic of continuing to ignore the condition of our transportation system which is so important to the State’s economy and our quality of life.
Our roads and bridges are in a sorry state, not to mention our rail and transit services. Even Mr. Coupal says that “no one disputes the dire need for improvements in California’s transportation infrastructure.” So, without quoting multiple statistics to prove the point, let’s just agree that the system needs to be fixed. And while Californians pay more for fuel and the state is at the high end of the gas tax rate, let’s also agree that it is more expensive to do business in California for many of the reasons that Coupal cites.
But let’s also not forget that it costs the average driver in this state nearly $800 a year in added vehicle repair and maintenance costs due to bad roads. And what about safety? We should be ensuring that the travelling public doesn’t have to worry about crossing a bridge that is structurally deficient because there isn’t sufficient money for an upgrade. Then there is the economy. Jock O’Connell, a Sacramento-based international trade economist, maintains that congestion and road conditions in the Golden State are significant factors in the cost of shipping goods, and that California’s highways are a “civic embarrassment.”
So why are we short of money? It isn’t just a question of poor management. The state gas tax was last increased in 1994. The base excise tax of 18 cents per gallon approved by voters in the nineties is worth only eight cents today. Taking into account that the fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet has also increased dramatically over the same period, and you have a recipe for disaster for a taxing mechanism based on consumption. Revenues have dropped so precipitously that the California Transportation Commission last week eliminated $754 million in projects from the state program and had to delay another $755 million in project work. This action represents the largest funding reduction since the current state transportation funding structure was adopted 20 years ago.
But let’s get back to that nagging question about “profligate waste” in the transportation program. Mr. Coupal claims that Caltrans is a dysfunctional, bloated bureaucracy. There is no question that our Department of Transportation needs to be more efficient, but in his second stint as our Chief Executive, Governor Brown has put a premium on improved performance at Caltrans and the Department is working hard to align staffing with workload. And in spite of all the recent audits and criticism, the organization employs competent people who want to serve the public well.
Fortunately, there is solid evidence that Caltrans and regional agencies can effectively deliver transportation projects. Consider the local sales tax programs approved by voters in twenty California counties. These programs follow a theme of “Promises made, promises kept,” and have met commitments to the voting public for the past thirty years. There’s more. In 2006, the electorate approved Prop. 1B, a $19.9 billion bond measure for transportation improvements. The program was well managed by the Transportation Commission and efficiently delivered by local and state agencies in an accountable and transparent manner.
There is no question that before we can ask taxpayers for more money, we have to provide assurances that the funds will be dedicated, protected, and efficiently spent. We need the same kinds of reform provisions incorporated in any revenue package that are included in our local sales tax programs and were part of Proposition 1B. We need performance measures laid out in advance so the public knows what it will get for the investment. However, for the future of our state, California must invest more in our transportation infrastructure, and the Legislature needs to act now.