Is killing the gas tax worth it?
Before deciding to show the “tax and spend crowd” in Sacramento a thing or two, drive down memory lane on the 120 Bypass.
Anybody remember the five- to six-mile traffic backups on a Friday night going toward the Sierra and on Sunday afternoons heading toward the Bay Area? Crossing Yosemite Avenue when Highway 120 went through Manteca was an adventure in patience.
The solution — admittedly half-baked thanks to politics played by the late Caltrans director Adrianna Ginaturco that Jerry Brown 1.0 annotated to “think small” when it came to state freeways — that engineers were forced to pursue was the creation of suicide lanes between Interstate 5 and Highway 99.
If you’ve never been unfortunate enough to drive suicide lanes put in place under Gianturco’s watch and other designs she dictated that flew in the face of safety and optimum traffic flow as a way to frustrate motorists to get them out of their cars, you’re lucky.
They consisted of alternating two lanes then one lane and then two lanes in each direction. The center lane basically weaved back into the outside lane every mile or so. This naturally led to head-on collisions. Gianturco did succeed in getting people out of their cars. Thirty-four people in 18 months driving the 120 Bypass were put into the ground. The carnage was drastically reduced after Caltrans installed concrete K-rails.
Fast forward to the mid-1990s when the San Joaquin Council of Governments loaned the state money so the 120 Bypass could be converted to full freeway status a decade ahead of schedule given gas tax receipts weren’t generating enough money fast enough to do the work. The impetus for the loan was traffic and carnage rising with the freeway in near parking lot status during the work day commute.
Now think about what the 120 Bypass is like today. Monday heading east from Interstate 5 traffic slowed down to 22 mph until it sped up to 40 mph by Union Road. There was no accident that morning that could have created a residual effect. There was no car stalled along the side of the road.
The Bypass during non-commute hours is starting to feel like the Bypass of 10 years ago during commute hours. As for commute hours, the worst is yet to come.
If you think help is on the way — a major $82 million makeover of the Highway 99/120 Bypass/Austin Road interchanges allowing two lanes of traffic to efficiently and safety flow to and from the Bypass followed by converting the entire 120 Bypass to six lanes — guess again.
Up until two years ago doing a remake of the interchange wasn’t even on the state’s list of projects programmed through 2040 based on gas tax revenue projections prior to passage of Senate Bill 1. Then a regional lobbying effort led by Manteca and spearheaded by Mayor Steve DeBrum got other cities in the region on board to make the interchange upgrade a must for the 209. A lot of it had to do with the carnage that has crept back up to make it the most dangerous stretch of freeway in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. A lot of it has to do with how it is starting to choke the movement of goods as well as turn commutes into daily stop and crawls in both directions.
No money was budgeted for any work for at least another 22 years. Caltrans has expressed hope there might be leftover funds from the bond passed specifically for Highway 99 upgrades but it would fall way short.
Then Senate Bill 1 was passed and Caltrans got enough wiggle room that they were able to start exploring ways to at least fund an initial phase if not the entire project at once with work starting as early as 2022.
But if the gas tax increase is killed, so is the interchange work.
If you can live with the Bypass for another 30 plus years in its current configuration with a 2 to 3 percent annual growth in traffic by all means vote to repeal the gas tax.
I get the anger. I’m not thrilled with a lot of wasteful and stupid spending decisions by the state. And although anger about gas tax being hijacked for other purposes are extremity overblown when you realize most but not all of that 30 percent people keep talking about has been diverted to transit, rail, and bicycle projects for decades, I whole heartedly agree with those who contend the state should have been tapping into the large budget surpluses of recent years to tackle the backlog of road and bridge safety and maintenance projects instead of funding special interests projects such as $9 million for Cheech’s museum in Los Angeles or to or pour significant millions into programs such as paying the legal tab so undocumented immigrants arrested at the border can fight being kicked out of the country.
I think Senate Bill 1 unfairly gives electric car owners a break, hurts the low-income workers that drive older and less fuel efficient vehicles, and it would be more equitable if it was based on miles driven since it is about wear and tear on the roads and not air quality.
That said I’m not willing to drive on roads and highways slipping into Third World status or damage the regional economy and increase the likelihood of more deaths and carnage by spiking the gas tax hike.