State must get rolling on transportation bills

February 12, 2017

The Legislature urgently needs to pass a transportation funding package in 2017 to address the billions in backlogged maintenance needs that have led to potholes, deteriorating roads, bridges and transit systems across our region and the state. The longer we wait to fix the small problems, the bigger and more expensive they become. In fact, it costs eight times more to fix a road than to maintain it.

According to the California Department of Transportation, we have a $59 billion backlog of needed upgrades to state highways. A separate report funded by local governments found that local streets and roads had an even bigger backlog of improvements needed: $73 billion. The Bay Area has been a leader in passing local ballot measures to fund transportation improvements as state and federal support shrinks, but it’s not nearly enough. Inflation, more fuel-efficient cars, and electric and hybrid vehicles have eroded state transportation funding over the years; as a result, road repairs now receive only 50 percent of the funding they did back in 1994.

Motorists are paying the price. According to a 2015 study from the National Transportation Research Group, the poor condition of California streets and roads costs the average driver $762 annually in maintenance costs. In the San Francisco-Oakland area that number is $978 per year.

Thankfully, there are positive signs. Legislative leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown have promised to pass a long-term, dedicated transportation funding package early this year. Passage of two bills by Bay Area legislators, SB1 (Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose) and AB1 (Rep. Jim Frazier, D-Oakley), will generate new revenue that can boost funding for transportation fixes in the Bay Area. These bills also contain strong accountability requirements to reduce bureaucracy and streamline project delivery.

SB1, the first of the bills up for a vote, is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday. It should be fast-tracked for passage. Each bill would provide:

•New revenue for transportation. Though not identical, both SB1 and AB1 are long-term transportation reform and funding packages that contain new revenue to make road safety improvements, fill potholes and repair local streets, highways, bridges and overpasses. Both bills would raise at least $6 billion when fully phased in, which is what is needed to make a dent in the maintenance backlog. The new maintenance revenue will be split equally between state and local roads.

•Strong accountability provisions. SB1 and AB1 include provisions to streamline projects by cutting bureaucratic redundancies and red tape to ensure transportation funds are spent efficiently and effectively. Both bills give more independence to the California Transportation Commission and establish the independent office of Transportation Inspector General to perform audits, improve efficiency and increase transparency. SB1 and AB1 should be coupled with strong constitutional protections to prevent the Legislature from using any new revenue for anything except road maintenance, improvement, and transportation projects.

Legislators must act quickly to pass a transportation funding package to prevent further deterioration of our network and further deterioration of our cars from driving on pothole-filled roads. We all pay, the more they delay.

Michael Cunningham is senior vice president for Transportation Policy at the Bay Area Council.

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