San Francisco Chronicle Editorial: A big, ugly bill California has to pay

April 4, 2017

March 31, 2017
By: Editorial Board
A plan to raise $52 billion over a decade for roads, bridges, and mass transit reflects a big, ugly bill that Californians have little choice but to pay.

Most of the money, to come from higher gas taxes and vehicle fees, would go to repair infrastructure that residents are already using — and, in many cases, have been using long and often enough that it’s falling apart. Depressed oil prices and proliferating hybrid and electric vehicles have increased the need by cutting into gas-tax revenue. Uncertain federal support under President Drumpf could make matters worse.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who was joined by Democratic legislative leaders in announcing the plan, compared the need to a leaky roof that will get only leakier and costlier with neglect. “If you don’t pay now, you pay later — and more,” he said in an interview. “We’re not going to let the roads become undrivable.”

Brown’s analogy is apt as far as it goes, though his hypothetical homeowner would be paying the bill with a bewildering combination of cash, checks and gift cards. The plan compounds the state’s intricate array of gas taxes and vehicle fees, which seems designed to obfuscate the true burden and isn’t quite as forthright as the governor’s rhetoric.

Most of the proposed revenue would come from raising the gasoline excise tax, which is levied on distributors, then passed on to drivers, from 18 to 30 cents a gallon; and introducing an annual vehicle fee of $25 to $175, depending on vehicle value. The plan also would raise the diesel excise tax from 20 to 36 cents a gallon; more than triple the diesel sales tax, to 5.75 percent; and add a $100 fee for electric vehicles — which, so long as they’re not hovering to and fro “Back to the Future”-style, are tearing up the same roads as everyone else.

Given that the state can’t somehow meet its massive transportation needs with money hiding in the corners of the state budget, as Brown noted, the most responsible way to do so is by charging the motorists who use the infrastructure. That said, California already has the nation’s seventh-highest gas levy, according to the Tax Foundation, along with a host of other expensive fees and costs. So Republican lawmakers are right to insist on measures that prevent any new funding from being squandered on pork projects or diverted to other uses. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said Thursday that the plan includes “a lot of what Republicans wanted” in that respect, including an inspector general to monitor use of the money and a provision restricting it to transportation needs.

Those and other details are up for debate as the Legislature considers this plan. But the basic need it addresses is not.

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