SPUR Talk: Prop. 6 Would Make State Fall Apart

Is California poised to bankrupt its transportation system?

A repeal of S.B. 1 will stop road repairs and transit funding throughout the state. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
A repeal of S.B. 1 will stop road repairs and transit funding throughout the state. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

A host of projects across the state, from basic road repairs to Caltrain electrification, could screech to a halt if voters approve Proposition 6, an attempt to repeal Senate Bill 1 (S.B. 1), last year’s 12-cent gas tax increase. Its passage would result in $5 billion a year going away, including $760 million in transit money, according to Matt Robinson of the California Transit Association. Robinson was one of the panelists speaking about “Taxes for Transportation” Tuesday afternoon at SPUR’s San Francisco location.

But the situation is, in reality, even worse than that. Although many projects depend on more than one source of revenue, losing one significant stream could kill access to others, including federal matching funds. It would also jeopardize contracts and leave ongoing projects in limbo. It also means much-needed infrastructure maintenance will have to be deferred, which just jacks up the long-term costs of repairing things. “Pay now or pay much more later,” said Rebecca Long, manager of government relations for the Association of Bay Area Governments. “There’s an efficiency in making investments and keeping a road in good shape. If we let them deteriorate, we’ll spend five to ten times as much.”

Map of the Month PCI

S.B.1, explained the panelists, was an attempt to make up for a long-arriving dearth in funding for road repairs. As cars have gotten more efficient–and inflation has chipped away at the value of existing tax dollars–there was less and less money available for things as basic as filling potholes, which is why Bay Area and other California roads are in such lousy shape, and why traffic keeps getting worse. “Last time the excise tax was raised was in 1994, by $.09 per gallon,” explained Long. In the same time period, California’s population has also increased dramatically. So the state, decade after decade, has been taking in less per-capita revenue dedicated to roads and transportation. “Even with S.B. 1, there’s been a 46 percent drop in value since 1963” in what’s raised from each gallon of gas taxes, continued Long.

Trying to make up for these shortfalls by raising the gas tax is not unique to “liberal” California. Long showed a map of states that have successfully raised their gas taxes. Increases are happening–out of necessity–in Republican majority states as readily as in blue states:


But Prop. 6 has an even more ominous aspect. Republicans, lead by Carl DeMaio, the author of the repeal initiative, are trying to emulate the success of Prop. 13 in 1978, both politically and structurally. Prop. 6 would, moving forward, require a referendum to raise fuel taxes or tolls for road repairs and transportation.

That, explained the panelists, would doom the state’s transportation system pretty much forever.

“Prop. 6 wouldn’t just repeal existing funding, but it would make it much harder to replace, because it would require voter approval of any tax increase on gas or user fees,” said Long.

The strategy of Republicans is to emulate the “tax payer revolt” of 1978 and ride that wave to get more Republicans elected. This has already resulted in the recall of Josh Newman, a state senator in a heavily Republican district of Orange County, over his pro-S.B. 1 vote. It’s also why pro-Trump Republicans including Paul Ryan and Devin Nunes are supporting Prop. 6.

Tuesday's "Taxes for Transportation" panel at SPUR. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Tuesday’s “Taxes for Transportation” panel at SPUR. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

“Their objective is to drive Republican voters” to the polls, said Robinson. “They are afraid of this blue wave coming in California and perhaps changing the makeup of Congress back in D.C.” But, he added, he thinks–and hopes–that strategy won’t work, because while Republican voters care about taxes, this single tax isn’t enough on its own to get them to the polls en masse. In addition, the Prop. 6 campaign’s “funding is drying up,” he said. But the supporters of Prop. 6 are also just getting started, he warned.

Specific projects that would be in immediate jeopardy include Caltrain electrification, which would be severally hamstrung, explained Seamus Murphy of the San Mateo County Transit District. S.B. 1 “allows us to fully convert the Caltrain system to electric trains, and instead of operating six-car electric trains we could operate seven-car trains.” The loss of S.B.1 funds would also jeopardize express bus services and freeway upgrades throughout the county and the addition of managed lanes on 101. “We can’t do it without S.B. 1 in place.”

Murphy explained Prop. 6’s passage would also mean less service on Muni, BART, and all the other regional transit systems that receive funding from S.B. 1. Smaller cities would be hit especially hard, since they have few local revenues to help subsidize transit services. “Small bus services from Bakersfield, to Fresno, Humboldt, all of our systems–200 or so–get a piece of S.B. 1,” said Robinson.


The irony of Prop. 6 is that it doesn’t even save motorists money–the damage done by potholes and deteriorating pavement on car suspensions, alignments etc., ends up costing individuals more than the average annual payout from the gas tax increase. A typical California driver already spends $739 dollars per year on repairs because of driving on bad roads, according to the research, and that will just continue to get worse.

Despite these facts, polling still shows that Prop. 6 has a decent chance of passing.

“I can’t imagine what the Bay Area is going to look like if all that money is wiped off the books,” said Robinson. “But all those bad commutes…will just get worse.”

For more on Streetsblog’s view on Prop. 6, check out our editorial.

Check out the ‘No on Prop. 6’ campaign.

Register to vote.

And for more events like these, visit SPUR’s events page.

  • LazyReader

    California is already crumbling. Since many projects depend on more than one source of revenue, loss of revenue from one particular source can have vast repercussions. When transportation infrastructure is paid for out of a myriad of various and specialty taxes that politicians push..politicians have great deal of clout how it’s spent. In particular they prefer “Ribbons over Brooms” that is, building new infrastructure rather than maintaining the old. And those same politicians are often guilty of assuming that various public transportation projects will provide highway congestion relief, something that transit is usually not capable of doing, even with gargantuan amounts of taxpayer money. For example, the Boston and Washington rail transit systems are rapidly deteriorating, with sometimes deadly consequences. Yet rather than rehabilitate these systems, politicians are building new rail lines that transit agencies can’t afford to maintain. I suppose that the politicians know that they will likely be out of office when the bill comes due for repairing and rehabbing the (new) train lines that they advocated for and approved.
    For the cost of California High speed rail, California could build 50 desalination plants could produce 2.5 billion gallons of water daily for water stressed California.
    The Billions that BART wants for it’s extensions could fix all their current dilapidated system

  • Rebecca Long

    Two corrections to the story. The last time the state’s gas tax was raised was in 1994, the final year of the Proposition 111 “Blueprint” increase of 9-cents per gallon – 5 cents in 1990 and then an additional one-cent per year for the next four years. SB 1 raised the gas tax by 12-cents per gallon, effective November 2017. Also, Prop 6 requires a statewide majority vote of the electorate for a future gasoline or vehicle tax, not a two-thirds vote. This is because the CA constitution allows voters to raise taxes statewide by a simple majority; local special taxes remain subject to a two-thirds vote at the ballot. Passing a gas tax or vehicle tax in Sacramento, however, does require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and Prop 6 makes no changes to that.

  • Bassoon Reedman

    Why should a gas tax fund High Speed Rail or Caltrain Electrification or ferries? That is what the farebox is for. Gas taxes and bridge tolls are not a slush fund for pet projects — they are paid by automobile drivers, and are supposed to be for roads. P.S. “gas taxes” include the sales tax (MUNI, BART, Caltrain don’t collect sales tax on their fares.).

  • Rebecca Long

    The state gas tax is not being used for any of these purposes. A small portion of it goes to the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), which is distributed to counties to prioritize congestion relief and mobility projects. The Constitution prohibits it from being used for transit “rolling stock” or transit operations, but a county has the option of using it on highways or “fixed guideway” i.e. rail track. Caltrain electrification is receiving funding from SB 1, but that funding comes from the new Transportation Improvement Fee (imposed on vehicles), not the gas tax.

  • Roger R.

    Apologies. Corrections made. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  • onlineNetizen

    my problem with SB1 was that it allows the tax money to be plowed into the general fund for other things.


    The bill would require $5,000,000 of the funds
    available for the program that are not restricted by Article XIX of the
    California Constitution to be appropriated each fiscal year to the
    California Workforce Development Board……

    The bill would authorize annual appropriations of
    $5,000,000 and $2,000,000 of the funds available for the program to
    the University of California and the California State University,
    respectively, for the purpose of conducting transportation research and
    transportation-related workforce education, training, and development,
    as specified…….

    This bill, commencing November
    1, 2017, would transfer the gasoline excise tax revenues attributable
    to boats and off-highway vehicles from the new $0.12 per gallon
    increase, and future inflation adjustments from that increase, to the
    State Parks and Recreation Fund, to be used for state parks, off-highway
    vehicle programs, or boating programs. The bill would allocate revenues
    from future inflation adjustments of the existing gasoline excise tax
    rate attributable to the nonhighway modes pursuant to existing law.

  • Kevin Withers

    Referencing a report by the Reason Foundation: California spends $84,005 per mile to maintain its highways, compared to a national average of $28k. It ranks 46th in the quality of its roads.

    Much of the prop 6 support is a protest against that statistic. Something in our system has to change, otherwise unsustainable.


  • Flatlander

    Why is it that when someone who clearly knows what she’s talking about comes by and sets the record straight on someone else’s nonsense, we never seem to get a response from the original commentor expressing gratitude for the free education?

  • I’m seriously tired of paying the highest gas prices in the nation while driving on the worse roads. It’s amazing how much better the roads are whenever I visit family in a state that deals with all 4 season including iced over winters yet, here in SF where it rarely rains, doesn’t snow, and the weather is mild all year long it doesn’t make sense to have such poorly patched roads, crazy potholes, and projects that seem to take forever. i’m voting yes for Prop 6 but will gladly vote for road improvement taxes once the state proves to me that they’re actually going to use the money to improve roads and they need to do that on the budget they have rather than keep asking for more money when nothing is changing.

  • 2378bri james

    Just get our state to use the gas tax money from the original tax on the roads instead of their favorite projects. They gave the train construction 58 million from the diesel tax money, that should have been used for highway system. The reason they came up short is our “wonderful legislator’s” misspent the money and want us to make it up

  • 2378bri james

    Then why did they give 58 million from the diesel tax money to the train construction? That money should have gone to the highway system, not this train. They claim it’s a loan, but I seriously don’t see it getting paid back. Rebecca, the state admitted they have used money for other things, they claim it’s all legal. I read it in their rebuttal to the yes on prop 6, they said that and mentioned that 58 million.

  • 2378bri james

    The legislature in their Nov 2017 vote, also added in there, that they can raise the new tax every year, if they want, and don’t have to go to the voters. This tax is going to cost all of us more, not only at the pump and car tags, but delivery cost and any service work involving their Vans and trucks, and grocery’s.. prop 6 makes the state use the fuel tax money they get , to be used only for roads. I’m voting yes



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