It's not a tax, it's opportunity
Many people won’t see the votes cast by Republican Senator Anthony Cannella and Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray to raise the state tax gas 12 cents as visionary. Those people suffer from one of two misfortunes: they don’t live around here, or they’re shortsighted.
Gray and Cannella grasped an opportunity that could transform our region.
“The Central Valley often feels it is being neglected – and often it is,” said Gov. Jerry Brown in explaining why he met the demands of Cannella and Gray. “This is recognition of that.”
Knowing their votes would be critical, Cannella and Gray developed common demands. First, they wanted the Altamont Corridor Express to be extended into Stanislaus County. They also wanted help building University Parkway in Merced County. Combined, those projects will cost $500 million.
They also wanted guarantees that those who purchase clean-diesel engines won’t have to retrofit them to adapt to new regulations through the life of the engines.
By voting yes, Cannella bucked the entire anti-tax Republican establishment. In the Assembly, Gray’s vote was just as crucial. Senate Bill 1 passed without a single vote to spare in both houses.
“They should have a ticker-tape parade for these guys,” said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon. “At the end of the day, you want to know who actually delivers for their constituents – and not just talking points. … These guys just delivered the biggest economic stimulus they’ve ever seen in the valley.”
We might argue that the water infrastructure we’ve paid for ourselves over the past century is the greatest economic stimulus, but let’s not quibble. There is no debate over what these investments will mean.
“The people (Cannella and Gray) represent are some of the poorest people in California – this is help for them,” said Brown. “These are real jobs, and that’s our goal; there are hundreds of millions of dollars coming into these communities, and that’s good.”
This isn’t just construction; it’s economic transformation. Extension of ACE from Manteca through Stanislaus to Merced will be convenient for people already commuting and it remove a few hundred cars from I-580. But the real benefit is connecting us more firmly to Bay Area jobs.
In his book “The New Geography of Jobs,” Berkeley professor Enrico Moretti lays out the growing distance between communities that create jobs and those stagnating with old industries. His No. 1 example is Silicon Valley and the cities of our Valley. What separates us isn’t 90 miles of road, it’s an economic chasm.
Both Merced and Stanislaus counties border Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley. The median income in Santa Clara is $96,310 a year. In Merced it’s less than half ($42,462) and not much better in Stanislaus ($50,125).
If the ACE train carries software engineers and developers home to our communities, they’ll demand better restaurants, entertainment, and education. Bridging that chasm creates opportunity.
University Parkway in Merced will do the same, creating a direct route from Highway 99 to the campus.
“The Parkway and the widening of Bellevue will be key,” said Gray. “There’s only so much big space available in Merced, and most of the developable property is around that loop. … We need to get that loop finished … That creates opportunity.”
Conservatives statewide are livid over raising taxes to fix roads. Some liberals were unhappy, too, because higher gas taxes will hurt the poor and working people more than the rich. Gov. Brown doesn’t buy that argument.
“It’s not (a tax),” he insisted. “You’re paying a fee – you’re getting a benefit. You’ve got roads that can damage your car and threaten your life.”
Driving 15,000 miles in a car that gets 25 miles per gallon will cost an additional $72 a year. But commuters drive more, but ACE train tickets will be a bargain.
Cannella, especially, is taking heat from an angry anti-tax crowd.
“The heat – and I’m taking a lot – is something I’m proud of,” said Cannella, who will be termed out in less than two years.
Why? Because opportunities such as these are rare for the Valley.
“We just delivered a deal that’s kind of a career accomplishment,” said Gray.
Clearly there are people – in our region, too – who would have preferred Cannella and Gray let this opportunity pass. We’re not among them. We need new roads. We need better roads. We need a link with the Bay Area.
But what we really need, more desperately than any amount of steel or asphalt, is opportunity. And our legislators – one Republican, one Democrat – just delivered it.