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As any motorist can easily verify, California’s roads are a disaster. Governor Brown and the legislature are running to the rescue with a $5.2 billion deal that will raise the tax on gasoline, raise the tax on diesel and raise user fees on motorists. California taxpayers, the most embattled in the nation, have good cause to wonder why the existing funds for road maintenance are not doing the job.
As we noted, the California Department of Transportation developed a model for the allocation of maintenance funds but abandoned it because it would have reduced more than 100 Caltrans staff positions. As the state auditor observed, instead of spending the money based on actual need, Caltrans distributes funding based the previous spending patterns of the region in question, whatever the road conditions there. So even with a repair backlog of $78 billion for local roads and $59 billion for state highways, it’s all about spending, not fixing. Taxpayers might also recall that for years the state has diverted $1.5 billion in transportation infrastructure taxes to subsidize California’s General Fund bond payments.
The state needs new roads and highways but Caltrans is not eager to build them and claims “solid science” on their side. According to the National Center for Sustainable Transportation, adding capacity to roadways does not alleviate traffic congestion, increase employment, or generate economic activity. According to this “science,” new roads only increase vehicle miles travelled (VMT) and that is bad for the planet. This puts Caltrans on the same page with the governor’s climate-change dogma, and that will give the vast bureaucracy fewer projects to oversee and less work to do. But that doesn’t mean Caltrans will downsize. The state agency already maintains 3,500 engineers who do little more than show up, so Caltrans will never hesitate to maintain full-time employees who don’t build new roads and others who don’t maintain existing roads, an obstacle course of potholes.
Taxpayers might note that the state seeks to spend nearly $70 billion on a bullet train, and $15 billion to dig tunnels under the San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta. Perhaps fixing the roads and building new ones would be a better application for those funds. The governor and the legislature would rather hike taxes on the workers.
“I think people know this is something good,” Brown said of the $5.2 billion deal, “this is something necessary.” Taxpayers have good reason to find it another example of bad government. California may have the sixth-largest economy in the world, but in waste, unaccountability, and disdain for working people it surely ranks number one.