Our View: California roads are rough, but money to fix them getting scarce

12/08/2013 7:30 PM

12/08/2013 5:35 PM

Californians of a certain age love their Mustangs, as Ford Motor Co. surely understood when it unveiled the 50th-anniversary edition of the iconic muscle car last week.

The sleek design speaks of power and speed, and it will be marketed as an alternative to European imports. The new Mustang could become a classic, just as its predecessors were. There is, however, a notable difference between 1965, when the original was introduced, and today. California’s roads are in far worse shape than they were 50 years ago.

In the middle 1960s, Californians drove 100 billion vehicle miles per year. After dipping during the recession, the numbers are up again, from 326.9 billion in 2011 to 331 billion in 2012 to an estimated 331.9 billion this year. Each of those driven miles puts a tiny bit of wear and tear on the pavement.

Gasoline consumption, however, is declining – a testament to fuel-efficiency requirements. After a high of 15.9 billion gallons in 2004, consumption will fall to 14.5 billion gallons this year. By 2020, consumption will be at levels from the late 1990s.

That’s good for the environment and consumers’ pocketbooks, but not so good for road maintenance. The excise tax on gasoline funds all of the state Department of Transportation’s road maintenance and rehabilitation. As the miles-per-gallon number goes up, the use of gas goes down and Caltrans has less to fix the roads.

When you consider that the state’s excise tax rate on gas is 39.5 cents per gallon, that begins to add up. If California drivers had bought 15.9 billion gallons of gas, the state would have collected roughly $6.28 billion. When drivers buy only 14.5 billion gallons, the state will collect only $5.7 billion. That’s serious money.

Caltrans will spend about $3.3 billion on maintenance and rehabilitation this year. The department estimates it should be spending $7.9 billion just to keep up with needs of the current system.

A proposed initiative would raise the vehicle license fee to help pay for roads. Another solution might to be charge drivers based on the number of miles they drive. Other states are already talking about that.

Another solution would be to get people out of their cars so the wear and tear is diminished. Gov. Jerry Brown’s concept of building a high-speed rail would help, as would reliable mass transit, though the labor dispute at the Bay Area Rapid Transit system undermines public confidence in transit systems.

Californians’ love of and reliance on cars won’t end any time soon. There will always be a new Mustang or some other beautiful car to admire if not own. But California lawmakers and motorists need to confront one of two future realities: There will be a new tax coming, soon and on something, or, those roads are going to be too rough to drive those beautiful cars over.

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