Gas Tax Hike for Roads OKd, Sent to Governor

Times Staff Writer

After months of delicate negotiations, the Legislature on Friday passed and sent to the governor a plan to double the state gasoline tax and raise other revenues to finance an $18.5-billion, 10-year expansion of California’s streets, highways and mass-transit systems.

The plan, endorsed by leaders of both political parties in the Assembly and Senate and officials representing Gov. George Deukmejian, is designed to avert a transportation “nightmare” that would bring traffic in the state’s major cities to a virtual standstill by the turn of the century, said one of the key proponents of the package.

Has Attractive Provisions

The wide-ranging proposal includes provisions to attract the support of business groups, road-builders, environmentalists and the millions of California families who would be paying an average of $58.50 more each year for their gasoline by the time the full tax increase would take effect in 1994.


Voters, however, would not be asked directly to approve the gas tax increase, a condition Deukmejian has insisted upon for months. Instead, a measure would be placed on the June, 1990, ballot asking voters to change the state’s constitutional spending limit and stating that easing the spending limit would trigger the gasoline tax increase.

“This is a 10-year plan to put us on the road to the 21st Century,” Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said of the package. “Without this, our road system will be a nightmare. The average speed in the Bay Area and Los Angeles will be under 10 m.p.h.”

Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who authored one of the bills in the package, said the proposal is needed to keep California’s economy growing. He said the state’s businesses are losing $12 million a day because sales people, distributors and others are caught in traffic jams.

“This is causing businesses to move, not just out of the area, but out of the state, because they cannot service their customers,” Ferguson said.

Opposition to the package was light as several bills containing the provisions moved easily through the Assembly and Senate late Friday. One of the critics, Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy (R-Monrovia), said the scheme was designed to fool the voters because it is proposed to be titled the “Traffic Congestion Relief and Spending Limitation Act.”

The ballot measure to which the transportation package is tied actually would increase the state’s current spending limit so that it will probably never again trigger a tax rebate as it did in 1988, Mountjoy said.

“I don’t think the taxpayers are going to be fooled by the gimmick,” Mountjoy said.

The increase in the current 9-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax would be 5 cents in 1990 and 1 penny each year for four years after that. The tax increase would raise an estimated $13 billion over a 10-year period. The legislative package also includes $3 billion in proposed bonds, $2 billion in increased truck weight fees and $500 million in additional sales taxes that would be gained from gasoline purchases because of the higher fuel tax.

How Money Is Divided

The money would be divided this way: $4.75 billion for new streets and highways; $3.5 billion for mass-transit construction; $5 billion for either roads or transit; $4 billion for state and local road maintenance and $1.25 billion for environmental programs and measures to improve the efficiency of streets and highways.

Included in the legislative package are two bills pushed by the Republicans. One would allow the construction of four toll roads to be designed and built by private companies, turned over to the state and then leased back to private interests to be operated for 35 years. The other would speed the construction of certain roads by limiting administrative costs and expediting the permit process when it is determined that a project will have little or no impact on the surrounding area.

Democrats insisted that the package include funds for commuter and inter-city rail projects and provisions to tie distribution of road construction money to local plans designed to prevent new development from overwhelming the transportation system. The proposal also includes $100 million to plant trees near highways and $150 million to complete construction of sound walls alongside freeways in urban areas.

High-Tech Idea

An idea pioneered in Los Angeles for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games--the use of high-tech equipment to coordinate traffic signals, detect congestion on freeways and dispatch trucks to clear the way--would be greatly expanded throughout the state under the plan.

Most of the $18.5-billion financing package would be distributed by the California Transportation Commission according to priorities the commission already has approved. At least $3.5 billion worth of road projects are expected to appear on a county-by-county list accompanying the June, 1990, ballot measure.

“The people next June are going to be able to look at this measure and see exactly what it is going to mean for their area and their neighborhood,” said Caltrans Director Robert K. Best. What they will see, he said, is that “over the next 10 years, California is going to be getting a lot more for its money.”

Some Groups Opposed

Some business and environmental groups opposed the plan as it moved through the Legislature on Friday, and education leaders were threatening to oppose the gas tax increase if they were not satisfied by negotiations on the 1989-1990 budget. Katz said that opposition, if it continues, would make it tougher to win voter approval next year.

“It will be difficult to pass something without everybody pushing in the same direction,” Katz said. “You’ve got to be able to present a united front.”