Advocates Make Final Push to Save State Transportation Funding

Prop. 6 would repeal gas tax adjustment--and let infrastructure continue to decline

ACE service is currently rush-hour, peak direction only. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
ACE service is currently rush-hour, peak direction only. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

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There are roughly 5,000 cars not on the freeways during the weekday rush hour and not adding to the traffic congestion between the Central Valley and San Jose, thanks to the Altamont Corridor Express rail service, seen in the lead image.

Late last week, the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) awarded an additional $12.3 million dollars in S.B. 1 funding through the State Rail Assistance (SRA) program. The San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission (SJRRC) and San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA) will use the money for ACE and for Amtrak’s San Joaquins, which connect the Central Valley with Oakland and Sacramento.

From the press release:

For ACE service, the current funding award includes $3.4 million for extending the Fremont station platform to accommodate longer trains, and $500,000 for the Lyoth rail connection in Tracy. This junction currently requires ACE trains to slow down through the area due to the manual safety system for the short-haul freight line connecting to the mainline. The upgrade to an electronic safety system will allow for increased ACE train speeds through the junction.

Those are incremental improvements that, obviously, won’t solve the state’s transportation problems on their own. But ACE is just one of hundreds of big and small projects that depend on S.B.1 funding, which Prop. 6 would cancel out if it is approved tomorrow.

“S.B. 1 is already contributing essential funding to capacity expansions and reliability improvements for Caltrain, BART, Muni, AC Transit, and more,” explained Friends of Caltrain’s Adina Levin in an email to Streetsblog.

“If Prop. 6 passes it will set our movement back tremendously, possibly by many decades! Yes, we would we lose the direct annual funding — $100 million for active transportation, $750 million for transit and $1.5 billion (with a B) for local road maintenance that is fixing our cracked roads and bringing us so many complete streets with it,” wrote Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of TransForm. “But we would also have a MUCH harder time winning these funds again.”

That’s because Prop 6, in addition to cancelling the S.B. 1 gas-tax adjustment, would require any new state transportation taxes to be passed by voters.

Streetsblog California did a breakdown some of the expenditures from S.B. 1 and what would happen if it were repealed. Streetsblog, via SPUR, described the long-term implications to the state of Prop. 6. The irony is that motorists, more than almost anyone, will be impacted by roads that will continue to deteriorate, since the vast majority of S.B. 1 funds go to state highway maintenance.

So why are some Republicans pushing so hard on Prop. 6 if it can be so damaging, even to the motorists they claim to be protecting? It’s because the gas tax has become mired in politics and today’s scorched-earth partisan power-plays.

All of which means the choice on Prop. 6, actually, is pretty simple.

“If Prop 6 passes,” wrote Livable City’s Tom Radulovich in an email to Streetsblog, “San Francisco, the Bay Area, and California will become less mobile, less safe, less equitable, and less livable. Public transit will get more crowded, less reliable, and less safe. Our roads and bridges will deteriorate faster, and critical safety and accessibility projects won’t get built.”

Or, as SPUR’s Ratna Amin put it: “Transportation costs money and leaders didn’t pay the bills. With S.B. 1 we have money and now people want to take it away, set us back a generation, and make California an infrastructure backwater.”

  • Kevin Withers

    “Transportation costs money and leaders didn’t pay the bills.”

    So now, the little people have to pay again? How about the once-SB1 supporters hit up their legislators, and demand reprioritization of existing funds?

    Nah, that would make too much sense. Just soak the little people again with the regressive money grab.

  • Anti-taxers never offer real funding alternative, it always seems to just come down to, “pay for my tax cut by defunding something I personally believe is wasteful.”

    Prop 6 supporters are objecting to the first gas tax increase in a quarter-century; an inflationary adjustment which looks unusually steep because of how long this gas tax holiday had been.

    Had it quietly increases with inflation (about a half-cent-per-year) it wouldn’t have even been noticed. Our roads and transit wouldn’t be in the shape their in had we just let it adjust gradually.

  • Edward

    Or TANSTAAFL. Our streets and roads are subsidized. Less than half their cost is paid for with *user* taxes. The rest comes from property taxes, the general fund and bonds. And don’t get me started on all the government provided free storage of private property.

  • thielges

    An index-based gas tax would be ideal, allowing the roads funding to automatically scale with the cost of maintenance. No need for ballot propositions to beg for adjusted funds. I don’t know why gas taxes are always fixed pennies on the gallon amounts. Property and sales taxed automatically scale because they’re indexed to the costs of property and goods.

  • Kevin Withers

    How about just letting any gas tax measure be approved by voters? That was the promise.

    SB1 allows unfettered raises in the future without voter approval, and anyone who thinks that is the correct, or is foolish enough to “trust” politicans can please leave the conversation.

  • Kevin Withers

    Get started, dude. Slay your strawman.

  • How about just letting any gas tax measure be approved by voters?

    This boils down to being unhappy with the outcome and looking to change the playing field. SB-1 was approved by a 2/3 majority of the Legislature, as required.

    That was the promise.

    I’m not sure what you mean. There was a Constitutional Amendment which went with SB-1 which requires the funds be used on the categories and specific projects named (and cannot be used for high-speed rail)

    We approved that Amendment overwhelmingly and I wonder if it might be a model in the future to ensure dedicated funding is safe from for your untrustworthy politicians.

    There was a defeated counter-measure on the same ballot by opponents which would have put the money in a lock box after a few years. I forget the details, but it was basically a way to sabotage it.

    SB1 allows unfettered raises in the future without voter approval, and anyone who thinks that is the correct or is foolish enough to “trust” politicians can please leave the conversation.

    Whether SB-1 passes or fails, this doesn’t set any kind of legal precedent change how our representative democracy works, delegating certain decisions to our elected representatives.

  • Kevin Withers

    “When Brown announced his candidacy for another hitch as governor in 2010, he solemnly promised voters: “No new taxes unless you the people vote for them.”

    The hell with the ‘playing field’. SB 1 was a ramroded piece of extortion.

  • Accounting for inflation seems like the easiest way to get tax increases and be done with it. I don’t know why SB-1 couldn’t be phased in over 2 years to ease the blow.

    SB-1 is also a fixed 12¢ increase with a 10-year lifespan, so it will also decrease relative to inflation.

    I don’t think the fixed value or sunset is that a bad thing this time around because we’re in the midst of a major change.

    Half a century ago, gas taxes were a pretty fair proxy for charging motorists relative to the wear-and-tear they put on the roads.

    That obviously doesn’t work when you’re looking at electric vehicles and why SB-1 has a new fee for electric vehicles.

    Ultimately the direction the world is going is replacing the gas tax with a fee based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT), a much better proxy for the amount of wear on the road than the power source.

  • SB1 is being phased in to soften the blow. Beyond the fact that the amount (12 cents) and timing (November 1) of the increase were chosen specifically to coincide with the usual difference between summer and winter blends and switchover date from one to the other to not create a shock, the tax that went into effect last November will be followed by an additional tax increase on July 1, 2019 and it will be adjusted by inflation annually after that.

  • Except that the leaders weren’t personally keeping the money, they just weren’t spending it properly. Though the idea of being able to claw it back from them for mismanagement of the State budget is an intriguing idea.