Dan Walters: California's hefty fuel taxes buy poor roads

dwalters@sacbee.comJuly 2, 2013 

If you spend some time driving in other states, returning to California's roads and highways is a jarring experience - literally.

Federal Highway Administration data tell us that California not only has the nation's worst traffic congestion, but its second-roughest roadways.

But as of this week, California motorists are paying the nation's highest fuel taxes, nearly 72 cents a gallon, including those for the federal government, due to an annual adjustment by the Board of Equalization.

What's wrong with this picture? Everything.

California is a high-tax state. It has the nation's highest income and sales tax rates, and only relatively moderate property taxes prevent its having the highest overall burden of state and local taxes.

So what, one might ask? Hasn't it always been, relatively, a high-tax state?

Yes, but during the three decades after World War II, its economy boomed and Californians also enjoyed high levels of public services, with its magnificent highway system an obvious example.

California was so adept at building and maintaining first-class highways that its engineers were lent to other nations all over the globe. But, as with other public services, the roadway system began to deteriorate in the 1970s and 1980s.

Expansion slowed to a crawl, despite high levels of population growth, and congestion was the inevitable result.

Meanwhile, maintenance lagged and California's state and local roadways were plagued by potholes and other signs of deterioration.

Some older freeways are literally falling apart. And once-proud Caltrans is being roasted for its sloppy oversight of an over-budget, overdue upgrade of San Francisco's Bay Bridge.

The 72 cents per gallon that California's motorists are paying represent about 20 percent of the cost of fuel and generate more than $10 billion a year. On paper, according to a recent state-by-state compilation, California is annually spending $679,000 per mile on its highways, the second-highest level in the nation.

Seemingly, we are taxing motorists a lot and spending a lot, but we are not getting a lot in terms of system adequacy and condition.

State transportation officials plead for more money, but the data indicate that the many billions of dollars now provided to them by motorists aren't being spent very wisely.

Even a cursory look into the labyrinth of interlocking transportation accounts reveals that many of those dollars are diverted into other purposes, while a huge transportation bureaucracy, about 20,000 bodies, consumes many more. Precious little - clearly too little - is being spent where the rubber meets the road.

Having the nation's highest fuel taxes and some of nation's worst roadways should command attention from top politicians.

However, they continue to ignore it and we continue to tolerate it.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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