“State needs billions to fix highways despite gas tax,” was just one headline in reaction to a report issued by Caltrans last week. The response from California taxpayers was, “you’ve got to be kidding.” California has the highest gas tax in the nation and yet, if one believes the bureaucrats, it just isn’t enough to fix our roads and highways and $6 billion more is needed annually. But the truth is we have plenty of money to meet the need if the money were spent for its intended purposes.
The claim that billions more are needed was revealed in Caltrans’ draft State Highway System Management Plan (SHSMP) for 2021. Luckily, I’m fluent in Bureaucratese and in Taxpayer. Allow me to translate from one to the other:
“The SHSMP presents a fiscally constrained allocation of available funding (translation: not enough money) for the maintenance and rehabilitation of the SHS (translation: for road repair). The 2021 SHSMP identifies a $6.1 billion annual shortfall that imposes a constraint requiring transportation objectives to be prioritized (translation: Give us the money or we’ll kill the project in your district).”
The gross misspending, waste and diversion of gas tax revenues into projects having nothing to do with roads or highways. In fact, Caltrans admits that as it tries to focus “available funding on core system assets,” it is “simultaneously increasing our investment in bicycle and pedestrian transportation modes to help achieve climate goals and provide more equity in transportation system access.”
Where is the “equity” in a regressive gas tax, now the highest in the nation at 62.47 cents per gallon? For average Californians, the ability to drive to work, take kids to school and run errands is not a luxury, but the state’s Legislature priced it like a luxury when it raised gas taxes and vehicle registration fees by passing Senate Bill 1 in 2017.
How does California’s gas tax compare with the states to which Californians are fleeing in droves? Here’s the data from the Tax Foundation: Texas, 20 cents per gallon; Florida, 42.29 cents per gallon; and Nevada, 33.78 cents per gallon. (These three states have no income tax, and their roads are better).
Although SB 1 raised taxes with the promise that the money would be used to repair crumbling roads and bridges, about 30 percent of the revenue raised by the tax hike is designated for other transportation priorities, including public transit, bike lanes and walk paths. And the law includes not one reform to address the well-documented waste at the California Department of Transportation.
The California State Auditor has repeatedly cited Caltrans for a lack of cost controls, leading to waste, fraud and abuse. And in November, the Reason Foundation Annual Highway Report ranked California’s highways 43rd in the nation in overall cost-effectiveness and condition.
It’s infuriating to hear Caltrans moan that it needs more money for road repair when, in a move that incensed both taxpayers and drivers in the Central Valley, Governor Newsom signed an executive order in 2019 that redirected gas tax money to fund railway systems and other non-road projects. Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, noted that the diverted funds would have increased stretches of Highway 99 from four to six lanes in the Central Valley to alleviate what Caltrans itself called a “bottleneck” along this major freight corridor.
When it comes to highway construction and maintenance, California delivers a low level of service at an inflated cost. We can fix this by directing gas tax revenues to projects that do the most good for the state’s driving public and by reducing our transportation bureaucracy.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.