California's Transportation Bureaucracy Is Stuck In the 20th Century

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The California State Legislature is 85 days into a special session to figure out how to plug an estimated $6 billion to $10 billion gap in transportation maintenance and upgrade funding, and they don't have much to show for progress. Both the Assembly and Senate Democrats have only passed spot bills - essentially, "we'll gut-and-amend these bills at the last minute in a backroom deal between the Assembly Speaker, Senate President Pro Tem, and Governor." Meanwhile, both the Assembly Republican Caucus and the Senate Republican Caucus have proposed forward-thinking government reforms to raise the necessary funds without increasing taxes and fees.

Legislative Democrats and Governor Brown prefer that California tax its way out of this mess over reforming Sacramento's bureaucracy. But right now, the Democrats don't have the necessary votes to meet the 2/3rd majority for passing tax increases. They hope, instead, that if they wait to the last minute to push a bill, some Republicans will vote out of frustration for their tax-only plan. No one disputes California's transportation woes; in basically every single category, California ranks at or near the bottom of the 50 states in road quality. But yet, California's leaders have consistently failed to prioritize transportation maintenance and modernization in the state's budget.

According to some estimates, California collects $10.6 billion each year in dedicated revenues for transportation, but the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) spends just 20% of that revenue on repairs and upgrades. The rest of the money is wasted by the bloated transportation bureaucracy, or in some cases doesn't even make it to transportation accounts, but is rather put into the general fund to be spent on other issues. Moreover, between FY 1984-1985 and FY 2014-2015, inflation adjusted transportation general and special fund expenditures grew by just 2.7% per year, slightly slower than overall inflation adjusted expenditures. And while national transportation spending accounts for 6.8% of total FY 2014 spending according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, in California, it was just 5.6%.

The high-speed rail project is more proof Sacramento has made a conscious decision to de-prioritize transportation maintenance spending. In Governor Brown's 2015 five-year infrastructure spending plan, high-speed rail is slated to receive 48% of the total transportation infrastructure funds.

California's roads don't require higher taxes to sustainably maintain and upgrade them. California's leaders need a new way of thinking about transportation. For starters, Assembly and Senate Republicans have placed an emphasis on making Caltrans operate as efficiently and effectively as possible. This shouldn't even be up for debate. The Legislative Analyst's Office has determined that Caltrans is over-staffed by approximately 3,300 employees. By forcing Caltrans to live within its means and conduct its work more efficiently, both taxpayers and drivers win. The Bay Bridge debacle is reason enough to reform Caltrans and yet, Democratic leaders refuse to support sensible reform.

Secondly, California's transportation funding is based on 20th century transportation. Despite Californians driving an estimated 26% more miles than in 1990, Californians are using less gas - down about 9% from 2005 - thanks to more fuel-efficient vehicles and California's determined focus on being the nation's leader in electric vehicles. With the State Legislature pushing ahead with SB 350 and SB 32, these trends will only accelerate, meaning the gas tax will, in perpetuity, always underfund transportation. Democrats cannot have their cake and eat it too when it comes to gas taxes and their environmental agenda.

California requires, then, a funding scheme that matches 21st century transportation. While the amount of gas consumed was - in the 20th century - highly correlated with miles driven and road wear-and-tear, more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles render this relationship obsolete. Instead, a mileage tax and tolling more of California's roadways and bridges are likely better suited to matching road use and road funding. While there are definitely challenges to these funding schemes - regressivity and personal data concerns being two - mileage taxes and toll roads, in lieu of - not in addition to - a gas tax would more effectively and efficiently fund California's transportation maintenance and modernization.

California's transportation bureaucracy and funding is stuck in outdated, 20th century models. There are sensible and pragmatic reforms available that both Democrats and Republicans should be open to embracing, which don't require increasing or layering taxes to fill a very detrimental funding gap in the Golden State's transportation system. Isn't it time Sacramento stepped into the 21st century?


Carson Bruno is the assistant dean for admission and program relations at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @CarsonJFBruno.

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