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Transportation Plan Tied to Gas Tax Hike OKd

Times Staff Writer

Declaring that it is “the only game in town,” Gov. George Deukmejian signed an $18.5-billion transportation improvement package Monday and pledged to campaign for voter approval of a gasoline tax increase of 9 cents a gallon to help finance it.

Flanked by Democratic and Republican legislators who helped forge the compromise that led to passage of the five-bill plan, Deukmejian urged business and labor groups to “get on board” the campaign for voter approval or lose the best chance in years to relieve gridlock in California.

The governor, who had been an influential player in the compromise talks but had never made a public commitment to campaign for the tax increase, acknowledged that it would take substantial funds and the support of a broad-based coalition of business, labor and professional organizations to win voter endorsement of the measure.

In a preview of the campaign strategy, he said voters will have to be shown that the state’s future economic prosperity as well as the quality of life they lead are dependent on a diverse, free-flowing transportation system.

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“Traffic congestion . . . costs us in terms of the quality of the air we breathe, it costs us in terms of the quality of life that we enjoy and also it can affect our economy because sometimes businesses are not going to want to do business in areas that are heavily congested with traffic,” he said.

Although opposition to tax increases has been a philosophical cornerstone of his Administration, Deukmejian said he did not believe he had broken faith with the voters by his approval of legislation doubling the gasoline tax. He said the ultimate decision will still be made by the voters.

Technically, the electorate will not vote directly on the tax measure. But before it can go into effect voters will have to approve a constitutional amendment relaxing the state’s spending limit. If the amendment is approved in June, 1990, state gasoline taxes will jump to 14 cents a gallon on Aug. 1, 1990. The gas tax would then be raised an additional 1 cent each year until it reached a total of 18 cents in 1994. The tax is now 9 cents a gallon.

Recently, several business groups--citing opinion polls that show voters would reject any measure tied to a gas tax increase as high as 9 cents--have shown a reluctance to endorse the tax increase and contribute to any campaign to pass it. In an apparent reference to that opposition, Deukmejian noted repeatedly that this may be California’s only chance in the near future to conquer its traffic congestion problem.

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“This is the only game in town and I think everybody should get on board behind it,” he said.

At one time, he said, the state’s political leaders had considered a 5-cent gasoline tax increase, which might be more palatable to the voters. But they ultimately rejected the idea because “it wouldn’t be adequate in terms of meeting the needs that we have.”

The 9-cent increase would raise $13 billion, or the bulk of the $18.5 billion that legislative leaders say they need over the next decade to finance a wide-ranging program that includes upgrading highways, enlarging mass transit systems and even planting trees along urban highways.

The remainder of the funds would come from a 50% increase in truck weight fees and a proposed $3-billion bond issue to finance rail transit. The first phase of the bond issue also would be subject to voter approval in the June, 1990, election.

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A compromise plan, the program answers Republican demands by providing for four toll road projects to be financed and built by private enterprise and mandating that the bureaucratic paper work on hundreds of road projects be reduced so they can be constructed more quickly. For Democrats, the plan requires cities to consider transportation needs in their approval of new development projects.

“This is a milestone in California history,” said Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco). “Think about it. This is the first time in years that there has been a substantial legislative package with respect to transportation.”

Both Kopp and Deukmejian said they are optimistic that voter impatience with traffic congestion will lead to approval of the constitutional amendment authorizing the tax. Last November, Kopp said, voters in seven of the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties approved substantial increases in bridge tolls by a 70% margin.

Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) said that as part of the transportation compromise legislative leaders have promised to approve a bill pushed by the California Trucking Assn.

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That bill, which is still pending in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, would prohibit local government from adopting any additional truck weight or truck access fees. Any fees already in existence would remain in effect under the proposal.

The trucking measure, which is opposed by Los Angeles, also would require local governments to coordinate any plans for limiting truck access to streets during rush hours. Under the proposal, adjoining cities could not set different hours in which truck access could be limited.


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