California's evaporating gas tax

Californians can't win. Just when Congress finally approves a long-delayed transportation bill that guarantees five years of federal funding for road, bridge and transit projects, state officials announce that they'll have to slash funding over the next five years for the same kinds of vital infrastructure investments.

Last month, the California Transportation Commission said the state would cut transportation funding by $754 million — a 38% decrease. Why? Because revenue from the state's levies on gasoline sales, which provide much of that funding, plummeted as gas prices dropped and more fuel-efficient vehicles proliferated. Those falling prices cut the state's gas excise tax revenue from 18 cents a gallon two years ago to 12 cents last year, and revenue is expected to sink to 10 cents in July. Every penny in revenue lost per gallon means a $140-million drop in transportation funding.

As a result, not only will no new projects be funded, but more than 200 projects already in development also would be de-funded or delayed. In Los Angeles County, for example, the cut could jeopardize the purchase of new light-rail cars, the construction of a pedestrian bridge at the Burbank Airport Metrolink station, and the widening of State Route 138 in the Antelope Valley.

California is already behind on basic maintenance of the state's existing transportation infrastructure. Caltrans has deferred $59 billion worth of highway and bridge repairs. Cities and counties face an even bigger bill, needing $78 billion to return local streets to good condition. Now, lawmakers' failure to come up with a reasonable, forward-looking funding plan means that the state won't be investing enough in the transportation system either.

It's not as if they didn't have the chance. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown called a special session to come up with a way to pay for more transportation projects. Democratic leaders, along with Brown, have proposed raising fuel taxes between six and 22 cents a gallon and imposing a new highway user fee that would apply to all vehicles, including electric cars not subject to the gas tax. But Republican leaders have opposed tax increases, citing the state's budget surplus.

It's foolish to count on a temporary revenue surge to solve the state's long-term transportation funding problem. Even if gas prices climb again, the trend toward gas-sipping and alternative-fuel vehicles will continue to eat away at the taxes that have traditionally paid for transportation improvements — at both the federal and state levels. California is developing a pilot project to test a new model — charging drivers based on how many miles they drive, rather than the gas they use. But that option could be as much as a decade away. In the meantime, California lawmakers ought to raise taxes and fees enough to keep the roads and bridges from crumbling.

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 03, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "The evaporating gas tax" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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