People rolled through Rock Auto in El Cajon, Calif., in droves this month to sign a petition to overturn Gov. Jerry Brown’s so-called gas tax. Volunteers wielding clipboards in red t-shirts reading “Stop the Gas Tax” harvested names from drivers eager to support the cause.
“You have to stop by if you haven’t signed yet and be part of this citizens’ rebellion against Sacramento mismanagement, high taxes, waste, thuggery, fraud and abuse,” Carl DeMaio boomed over a microphone, broadcasting live from the scene on radio station KOGO 600-AM.
For months, the former San Diego City Council member turned conservative talk radio host has held such signature drives all over Southern California. And people have responded enthusiastically, such as longtime Chula Vista resident Mimi January.
“It’s ridiculous,” said the 74-year-old from the window of her vehicle at the event in El Cajon. “Once again, the Democrat Party doesn’t understand that we’re sick of it. We’re sick and tired of being taxed to death.”
Supporters of Senate Bill 1, the Road Repair and Accountability Act, have celebrated the legislation as a huge win for the state.
The increase in fuel and vehicle registration fees is projected to raise roughly $5.4 billion a year for everything from highways to roads to bridges to public transit to sidewalks and gutters.
“This is a real and focused investment in our transportation and roadway infrastructure locally and across the state, for the first time in decades,” said Sen. Toni Atkins, (D-San Diego), who replaces Kevin de León in March as state Senate President Pro Tem. “Residents will soon see real, tangible benefits from their investment.”
As millions of dollars from the tax increases are set to start pouring into city and county coffers at the end of January, DeMaio has nearly gathered the 585,407 signatures needed to qualify the initiative for the November ballot.
If successful, the measure would roll back the hike on fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, as well as require a public vote for any such future increase.
“We do need to fix the roads,” he told the San Diego Union-Tribune at the signature drive, “which is why I’m wondering why the politicians keep diverting the money away from road projects. If they wanted to fix the roads, they wouldn’t be stealing the existing gas tax.”
The idea that elected officials in Sacramento have misappropriated money from fuel taxes has become the primary rallying cry of opponents of the tax increases, including El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells.
“It’s a misnomer to believe that the state of California is going to funnel this money back into fixing roads,” Wells said at the event. “They don’t have a good track record of doing such a thing. I honestly believe this money is just going to be sucked into the black hole of the California pension system.”
So what’s the legislature’s track record on siphoning money away from road and highway projects?
It’s true that elected officials in Sacramento diverted money from several transportation accounts in the early 2000s. However, most of the money has since been paid back.
Under governors Gray Davis, a Democrat, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, the state borrowed revenue from transportation accounts to patch holes in the general fund budget following the dot-com crash.
Roughly $3.39 billion between 2001 and 2005 was borrowed from transportation accounts predominantly for highways and roads that were funded by fuel taxes, according to the California Department of Transportation.
All but $706 million has been repaid, and officials have said that no transportation projects were significantly delayed, under the terms of the borrowing. Under SB 1, the remainder of the diverted money is required to be reimbursed from the state’s general fund within the next three years.
“There certainly were loans that were made, but they were repaid,” said Mitchell Weiss, chief deputy director with the California Transportation Commission. “Every city and county is going to see this in improvement in their roads. The scope of this pales in comparison to any small amount of diversion that occurred.”
Separately, about $1.5 billion in weigh-in fees paid by truckers that go to the State Highway Account have been used to pay debt service on transportation bonds.
If the diversions were so insignificant, why then does California have a $137-billion backlog in transportation maintenance?
Experts have said the shortfall is largely due to more fuel efficient vehicles and the existing tax not keeping pace with inflation. The state excise tax on a gallon of gasoline was last raised in 1994.
Voters are traditionally reluctant to embrace tax increases for infrastructure upkeep, as opposed to new capital projects, said Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning and director of the Institute for Transportation at the University of California Los Angeles.
“One of the things to understand about maintenance is that for very little money, a road can last a long time,” he said, but if you put it off for years that road starts to crack, water seeps in and undermines it. Then you have to spend at least 10 times as much to dig it all up and rebuild it.
“So keeping up with maintenance is an incredible way to save money,” he added, “but trying to tell a voter we want to raise your taxes so we can save you a lot of money in the long run is a really complicated idea to explain.”
So where is the money going?
Roughly half of the revenue from the increased gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, about $26 billion in the next decade, would go to transportation infrastructure maintained by the state. That includes about $1.8 billion a year for the highway system.
The other half of the money would be spent largely at the discretion of local municipalities on a variety of projects, predominantly related to road maintenance but also improvements to transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure. About $1.5 billion annually is projected for repairs to local streets and roads.
The state is also planning to roll out annually about $25 million for freeway patrols for stranded motorists on the most heavily congested freeways, $25 million in local planning grants and $5 million in workforce training.
With the taxes and fee hikes, Californians will pay an extra $10 a month on average, according to the state Department of Transportation. A legislative analysis found that drivers currently spend roughly $700 a year fixing their cars due to poor road