No quick fix for California’s highways

By From page A1 | April 23, 2014

A pending infrastructure crisis in the state was described in detail at a recent meeting of the El Dorado County Transportation Commission.

Presented by Will Kempton, executive director of an industry based advocacy group called Transportation California, Kempton’s credentials include being the previous director of Caltrans.

Kempton said the State Transportation Commission did a study in 2011 that identified all the transportation needs in the state and came up with a figure of $295 billion in spending that is needed through 2021.

However, butting up against that amount is the reality of coming up with so much money, said Kempton, including the fact that Proposition 1B (The Highway Safety, Traffic Reduction, Air Quality, and Port Security Bond Act of 2006) is coming to an end. Gas tax revenue is declining while at the same time there has also been a diversion of existing transportation revenues. There is also no state or federal solution on the horizon, he said, noting that the amount being spent on capital programs in the state has been reduced and beginning this year, the Federal Highway Trust Fund goes into the red.

Investing in our transportation infrastructure is not a high priority for politicians although the public sees the need, said Kempton at the March 6 presentation. At the same time, voters believe they are paying enough taxes and are skeptical about the government doing the right thing with additional tax dollars.

Listing different potential sources of revenue for transportation improvements, Kempton mentioned gas tax increases, although the public does not support that idea. Floating a bond issue is another idea, but the public is beginning to understand there is debt associated with it, he said. Cap and trade is another possible source of funding and the governor’s budget includes $850 million from that source, although very little of it would be available for conventional transportation.

Kempton also mentioned lowering the voter threshold for local sales tax measures used for transportation improvements. Currently they require a two-thirds vote but it could be lowered to 55 percent. However, he expressed some doubt about that idea, noting that everyone else would like to see the vote approval threshold lowered as well. Two other areas they looked at are increasing vehicle license/registration fees and diesel excise tax increases.

Kempton said they have conducted polls to determine how much support there is for different options with the poll numbers being highest for increasing the vehicle license tax, as long as the money went to local entities rather than the state. He said they considered flying it as a ballot measure with 25 percent of the revenue going to cities, 25 percent to counties, 40 percent to the state highway account and 10 percent to transit. Saying it would eventually generate $3 billion a year for road improvements, the measure is on hold for now because there is not enough public support for it to pass. The poll results were even lower for increasing the gas tax or other measures.

With raising the vehicle license tax off the table for now, Kempton said other opportunities for raising funds for infrastructure improvements include recapturing truck weight fees; advance loan repayment; an increase in cap-and-trade funds; implementing a vehicle miles traveled tax to replace the gas tax; passing a small bond of $5 billion for transportation improvements; and reform measures to ensure better accountability and efficiencies.

Kempton also threw out the idea of leasing out changeable message signs for advertising, which, he said, could raise $200 million to $400 million a year. We need to pursue these ideas, he said, “because we’re desperate.”

Kempton closed by advocating for more cooperation with the state Legislature, doing a better job of educating the public about the importance of investing in California’s transportation infrastructure, and finding “political champions” to carry the message.

Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.

Dawn Hodson

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