Remember the 1960s?
California looked as if it had its act together. There was a massive building of water storage and delivery systems. The University of California and California State University systems were in expansion mode. State-of-the-art prisons were being built. California’s freeways and highways were considered second to none in the world. And, to cap it off, Californians weren’t crushed by taxes.
The rise of the entitlement state plus long-term capitulation in public employee collective bargaining agreements are considered by some analysts as developments that undercut the state’s once fabled ability to deliver visionary projects without overburdening taxpayers.
But whatever the cause, one thing is certain — we have a mess to straighten out.
Perhaps none is as jarring as California’s road system.
There is a $59 billion backlog of road repairs needed on state highways and freeways over the next 10 years. That’s not for new freeways and highways. That’s for existing state roads. Add to it city and county road needs — a pavement consultant has told Manteca leaders they need to make $37.5 million in road maintenance investments in the next 10 years or run the very real risk of having to rebuild streets that have an overlal replacement value of almost $1 billion.
The California Legislature met last year in a special session to address the state’s crumbling freeway and highway system but could not devise a solution. It is now an even more pressing problem as they reconvene for a new year.
The $59 billion price tag, by the way, is just about what the high speed rail will cost to complete between San Francisco and Los Angeles assuming they can find a way to pay for it.
Of course Gov. Jerry Brown is already diverting 20 percent of the hidden green taxes collapsed into the price of gasoline at the pump that is being slapped on oil refineries to go toward high speed rail. That money could have gone toward mass transit projects servicing urban areas where stop and go traffic is polluting the air more severely than the vehicles traveling at 65 mph through the San Joaquin Valley that high speed rail supposedly will reduce.
But, hey, legacy projects to feed political egos are more important than mundane upkeep of existing infrastructure.
There are really only two long-term solutions to California pressing road maintenance needs — raise taxes and reduce future expenses.
The gas tax for road maintenance has been undermined not just by inflation but by vehicles getting significantly better gas mileage as well as electric vehicles that pay no gas taxes. Californians pay roughly 68 cents a gallon in visible taxes with 39.5 cents going to road maintenance. Since electric vehicles don’t use gas, they get a free ride on state roads by not paying anything for their maintenance. At the same time they get a tax credit for buying electric vehicles that not only means everyone else is helping them buy their car but also allowing them to avoid all taxes at the pump that not only go for roads but other government endeavors.
California needs to raise more revenue but they also need to make it equitable. It starts making GPS devices that log miles driven and reports them to a state taxing agency seem more and more reasonable. Either that or the state needs to drop the gas tax — or freeze it until hell freezes over — and go to an upfront charge when vehicles are registered to pay for road maintenance. Fail to renew your registration and pay the fees owed, then the state seizes your car — whether you are a legal citizen or not — until you pay the piper. That way with the car off the road they aren’t adding to the wear and tear that they aren’t paying their fair share to cover.
The insanity of our building has to stop, especially in the suburbs. Residential streets do not have to be wide enough to get two fire aerial ladder trucks driving side by side down with parked cars on both sides and still have 10 feet or so to spare.
Not only do wider streets cost more to maintain but they also encourage speeding as well as jack rabbit driving between stop signs. Narrower streets have been proven to slow traffic down to a more steady speed that also reduces pollution given emissions are higher during jack rabbit driving.
Of course, the easiest solution is to stop emulating the wide Missouri when we build streets. But we — as in the public — keep turning our noses up at such suggestions. At the same time cities aren’t taking the initiative to revise design standards even though they know the score. The status quo is so much safer politically and bureaucratically speaking.
So the only real solution will be jacking up gas taxes even higher than they need to be unless we want all of California’s highways and freeways to one day look like South Main Street just north of the 120 Bypass.
In that case, the best investment strategy will be to buy stocks in alignment shops and shock manufactures.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.