Here's why the state's shoddy roads won't get fixed any time soon

Over the last few months, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators have reached major deals to increase taxes on healthcare plans and boost the state’s minimum wage. But as Brown prepares to release his revised budget on Friday, one big issue appears to be far from a resolution: California’s shoddy roads.

Brown, Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Oakley) and state Sen. James Beall Jr. (D-San Jose) have all pitched plans to chip away at the more than $130-billion backlog in state and local road repairs, plus the billions more in annual transportation budget deficits. The plans emerged after Brown called a special session last summer to focus legislators’ attention on the dire problem.

All three proposals rely on hiking up the state’s beleaguered gas and diesel taxes along with levying new annual fees on car owners. These revenue increases require the support of two-thirds of the Legislature, including the backing of traditionally tax-averse GOP lawmakers.

“I think the missing element in this is Republican votes and identified Republican support,” said Brian Kelly, secretary of the California State Transportation Agency.

Brown will maintain his plan to boost transportation funding by $3.6 billion annually in the revised budget that he is scheduled to unveil Friday morning, and is open to adding more money to align with the aggressive proposals from Frazier and Beall, Kelly said. But at this point in the debate, he said, the dollar amount is less important than whether Republican lawmakers will vote for transportation tax increases.

“The only numbers that matter here are 54 and 27,” Kelly said, referring to the two-thirds majorities needed in the Assembly and Senate for passage.

Those numbers still appear far off. Assembly GOP leader Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley) said he's only had limited conversations with Democratic colleagues in the last few months over transportation funding. His caucus, Mayes said, remains committed to a plan it unveiled last fall that would reallocate existing transportation dollars, use projected budget surpluses and eliminate unfilled positions in the state budget — among other reforms — rather than raise taxes.

“I think that where they sit today there’s a lot of new revenue and not a lot of new reform,” Mayes said of the three Democratic plans.

Beall has tried most recently to court GOP support. On the revenue side, Beall wants to hike gas taxes by 12 cents and add a $100 fee for zero-emissions vehicles along with other increases. He's now added to his bill greater exemptions from the state’s main environmental law for road repair projects and beefed up accountability and oversight measures for the spending.

“They want cover for voting for the tax issue,” Beall said of his Republican colleagues. “And that’s the political decision. I think we need to understand that.”

What’s undisputed in the debate is the problem’s severity. Road problems cost the average California motorist $762 a year in repair costs, according to a recent study from TRIP, a Washington, D.C.-based transportation research organization. And none of the 20 most critical transportation projects in the Los Angeles area — including regular highway maintenance, expansion of the Metro Purple Line or expanding Interstate 405 — has enough funding available, the organization also found.

California’s reliance on gas taxes to repair its transportation network is becoming less and less tenable. Increased fuel economy standards have led to less spending on gasoline — a process the state is trying to speed up through its climate change goals by encouraging people to drive less and buy electric cars. Recent declines in gas prices also triggered a gas tax cut required by a complicated budget deal made during the state’s financial crisis six years ago. This move has threatened more than $750 million in road and transit expansion projects because of lack of funds. The state is also starting a pilot program to evaluate charging drivers based on how much they drive rather than through gas taxes.

A broad coalition, including the California Chamber of Commerce, labor groups and umbrella organizations representing cities and counties, has joined together to advocate for a transportation funding deal, including increases in the gas tax and vehicle registration and license fees.

That group doesn't just want any deal. Members of the coalition worry that a financing package that’s too small wouldn’t fix the problem and would require the group to seek more money.

“If we don’t solve the problem in a significant way, we’ll soon find ourselves back here doing the same thing,” said Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities.

Frazier's proposal, which he says would lead to $8 billion in increased annual transportation revenue, is the biggest financing package on the table. Frazier wants to direct more money to improving infrastructure surrounding the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and other trade routes in an effort to boost the state’s economy.

If Republicans are going to end up voting for a gas tax hike and other tax increases, they might as well go big, Frazier said.

“If you’re going to make a hard vote, why would you go for $4 billion and not $8 billion?” he said.

liam.dillon@latimes.com

Follow me at @dillonliam on Twitter

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