A Bumpy Ride for Highway Repair Bond

Five years ago, California voters approved a big gasoline tax increase to help fund a "Transportation Blueprint for the 21st Century." Since then, however, voters have been telling state government to go to the nearest bridge and take a flying leap. And partly because of that, the heralded blueprint has turned into a glob of red ink.

Along with authorizing a doubling of the state gas tax--from 9 cents to 18 cents per gallon--voters in the 1990 primary election approved a $1-billion bond issue for rail commuting. Then they went into reverse, rejecting two more $1-billion rail bond proposals in 1992 and 1994.

Something happened to the voters' psyche after that June, 1990, election, when they approved seven bond issues in all and rejected none. Maybe over the summer they began to feel the approaching recession, long before most politicians. Doubtless they got disgusted with a monthlong Sacramento budget stalemate, the first of a silly series. And probably they thought the pols were getting a bit gluttonous in their appetite for taxpayer-financed bonds. So the taxpayers, in turn, got stingy.

The next time they voted, in November, 1990, Californians rejected 11 bond measures. All told, they have nixed 18 since approving the "Transportation Blueprint" and approved just five--mostly for schools--and none in three years.

The Blueprint is shredded. It was designed to raise $18.5 billion for highway and transit projects but already is running about $5 billion short. The voters' rejection of $2 billion in rail bonds left one big hole. Others were punched by an erosion of gas taxes due to the recession and fuel-efficient cars, federal funding cutbacks, desperate diversions of highway funds to help balance the state budget and--most damaging--earthquakes.

When the Transportation Blueprint was being drafted in mid-1989, planners never envisioned the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake that fall, let alone the Northridge quake in 1994. Since then, the strengthening of highway bridges has become the state's top priority. Consequently, most other projects either have been slowed or parked and some are about to be completely junked.

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"Our highway system is going down the toilet," says Chairman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) of the Assembly Transportation Committee.

David Ackerman, a lobbyist for road builders and a campaign strategist for the 1990 ballot measures, asserts: "California used to have the best highways in the nation. Now, when you arrive in California you've got to make sure your shocks and brakes are OK."

Ackerman and Katz are part of a broad coalition of business, labor and political interests backing a new bond proposal designed to jump-start California's stalled highway program. It will be Proposition 192 on the March primary ballot and would authorize $2 billion for seismic retrofitting of more than 1,300 threatened bridges, big and small.

This retrofitting is going to be completed anyway, but the bond issue would speed it up and--significantly--free $2 billion in gas taxes, truck fees and tolls for regular highway and transit projects. Already, another 1,000-plus bridges have been retrofitted, tearing a $750-million hole in the Transportation Blueprint.

If Proposition 192 fails, many regular projects will be stretched out to 11 years and at least $650 million worth will be eliminated entirely, according to Bob Remen, executive director of the California Transportation Commission, the final arbiter on state highway spending.

But nobody believes Proposition 192 is going to cruise to victory. Voters two years ago rejected another $2-billion seismic bond issue, that one complicated by its earmarking of money for Northridge quake repairs.

"Voters are extremely suspicious, they're cynical," says David Townsend, a veteran strategist for local tax elections and a Proposition 192 consultant. "We're dealing in a world where people used to vote for bonds, but now are inclined not to unless they see a very good reason."

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It's also a world of voters with short attention spans and little patience for politics. They're attracted by so-called wedge and hot button issues--illegal immigration, welfare reform, stiffer sentences for sex offenders. . . . Investing in infrastructure is not hot-button. It's eye-glazing.

But a world-class infrastructure--not just weather--is what once made California the envy of the nation. Visionary politicians led by Govs. Earl Warren and Pat Brown invested in affordable higher education, life-giving water facilities and a model highway system.

California then was rolling in tax money. But it's not so broke now that motorists should be sitting routinely in traffic jams.

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