Last November, we asked you to trust our local government and elected officials by passing a half-cent sales tax increase to become a “self-help county” – meaning counties that have stepped up to generate local funding for transportation improvements. The two-thirds threshold for passage meant it took Democrats, Republicans and independents working together to make it happen.
After all the votes were counted, both Stanislaus and Merced County approved the measures. Thank you.
Gov. Jerry Brown has now put a state transportation funding plan on the table. It raises taxes, no question. Gas will cost about 17 cents more per gallon by 2020. Diesel taxes and vehicle fees will also increase. The gas and diesel components of his plan will fall hardest on working class families here in the Valley, where commutes are the longest and incomes are among the state’s lowest.
There are a lot of promises being made for the $5.2 billion a year the plan will generate, but the question we must answer is whether this plan makes good on its promises here in the Valley.
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This money is largely for road maintenance, not new roads. What that really means is the potholes will be fixed, but the congestion will remain. While anyone who has hit a pothole recently knows how badly we need this maintenance, a better plan would also build new roads to supply the infrastructure so vital to economic growth. The Central Valley is one of the fastest growing regions in the state and new infrastructure funding is critical to that growth.
The plan has substantial increases for public transit. This is great for communities that already have access to robust transit networks and commuter rail. For communities like ours, still waiting on promises the state has made to expand Amtrak, ACE rail, and other transit investments, this is just one more example of asking us to pay more with no guarantee of return in our community.
One piece of good news. The plan rewards self-help counties, like Stanislaus and Merced, with a dedicated pot of $200 million which can be used as matching funds to make local transportation dollars go even further. The plan splits funding 50/50 for local roads and state highways, requires automatic audits, and creates new accountability and efficiency standards for Caltrans to prevent the wasteful spending we have seen in the past. It has the potential to make a big difference for our region by sending millions to our local governments if fully dedicated to transportation.
That’s a big if.
Sacramento has a poor good track record in spending taxes for their intended purposes. Transportation accounts have been raided in the past when the general fund fell short, and $1 billion in truck weight fees continue to be diverted for other priorities. Critics of the transportation plan run with this point, telling you there is plenty of money if we simply rededicated existing transportation revenues.
That is wishful thinking. As the California Chamber of Commerce said, “revenues dedicated to roads have lost purchasing power since they were last increased 23 years ago.” Critics are wrong in criticizing that point, but right that we should return diverted revenues back to transportation. We support the legislative proposals to do just that.
If we want better roads, we’re going to need new revenues. But any plan that raises taxes must fulfill some basic principles:
Revenues must be constitutionally protected and dedicated to real transportation improvements. Sacramento must be unquestionably prohibited from raiding these funds. Not one cent should be collected unless protections are in place.
For the governor and legislature to have credibility, we must rededicate and protect existing and new revenues.
The burden of new taxes must fall equally on all shoulders, not disproportionately impacting rural communities. With housing prices near job centers through the roof, more people are forced to commute farther (consuming more gas) than many others. In these same rural communities, where agriculture is the primary economic driver, the proposed gas taxes will increase costs to grow and transport goods. These are the last folks we should ask to cough up new taxes.
The Valley must get its fair share of transportation investments – including public transit funding. Our ACE rail extension and Amtrak expansion should be guaranteed. Some people will call that pork; we call it transparency, ensuring we know exactly how our money will be spent.
Gov. Brown said this plan “is not eating cotton candy. This is real spinach. This is broccoli.”
Well Governor, when you eat your vegetables the entire body benefits – not just some parts at the expense of others. If you commit to improving the health of the transportation system in the entire state, we are prepared to work with you.
Anthony Cannella represents the 12th senate district, which includes Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, San Benito and Fresno counties; Adam Gray represents the 21st assembly district, which includes Merced and part of Stanislaus counties.