Momentum seems to be building in both Sacramento and Washington D.C. to address highway and roads that are suffering from lack of maintenance or simply wearing out after decades of use.
Gov. Jerry Brown alluded to the challenge during his inaugural address and a report released last month identified $59 billion in deferred maintenance. The state currently spends about $412 million on maintenance and should be spending more than $1 billion to start to address the problem, according to the report.
Anyone who drives on the freeways know what terrible condition many are injust try southbound Interstate 680 from Sunol Boulevard to Highway 84. Use the right lane at your peril. Thinking back to my California to Memphis road trip on Interstate 40 last fall, I do not think we encountered any pavement as bad while traveling more than 2,000 miles.
Changes are likely to come in two forms:
1. Use the model of toll bridges and toll lanes. The southbound toll lanes on I-680 over the Sunol Grade were a pilot project that will be expanded on the northbound direction as well as in the San Ramon Valley and on Interstate 580 in the Livermore Valley. Transportation officials and politicians can tout the success of Highway 91 that connects Orange County with Riverside County. In 2013, the heavily traveled lanes generated net revenue of $22.3 million. These are true user fees.
2. Given how much more efficient gasoline and diesel vehicles have become and the drop in the miles travelled, the gasoline tax, which is not inflation adjusted, buys much less than it once did. There seems to be a desire in both Sacramento and Washington to address this. With the governor wanting half of the vehicles in the state powered by electricity in 2050, there needs to be a fundamental change to assess true "user fees." That may mean raising vehicle registration fees or tracking actual usage
Democrats in Sacramento are taking the lead, although they are unlikely to tackle the governor's sacred cowthe absurdly expensive high-speed rail system. Dropping that plan and diverting those funds to roads and more sensible mass transit would be an ideal trade-off.
Meanwhile in the nation's capital, Senate Republican leaders have indicated they are open to raising the gasoline tax that hasn't been touched in 20 years. Movement by the Republicans, likely emboldened by the very low prices nationally, was welcomed by Democrat leaders in both houses.
The president is pushing an infrastructure plan and wants to fund it with a new tax on corporations. He would be wise to join the leadership of both parties and let users pay.
Of course, it would also be wonderful if more of the money actually went to fixing and building roads instead being consumed in bureaucratic exercises.