With the costs soaring to strengthen the state's highway bridges and overpasses against earthquakes, the Legislature last year approved a $2-billion seismic bond issue for the March 26 ballot.
Supporters say Proposition 192 is the only practical means of paying for the retrofits without cutting into funds critically needed to build highways.
Opponents counter that the measure is the product of a back-room deal reached at the behest of Bay Area legislators who didn't want to hike bridge tolls to pay for retrofits. And they note that it marks a move away from the traditional pay-as-you-go financing for highways.
Of the $2 billion, about a third--$650 million--is allocated to seven toll bridges, mainly in the Bay Area but also including, for comparatively small amounts, the Vincent Thomas and Coronado bridges in Southern California.
Since the proposition was put on the ballot, Caltrans has more than doubled its estimate of the money needed for the toll bridges and has been talking of rebuilding part of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge rather than retrofitting it.
It is already clear, then, that the bond issue will not be adequate to do the full job and, if retrofitting remains a top priority, the pressure to use regular highway funds from the gas tax will continue. But proponents say this means the bond issue is even more essential.
Beyond the toll bridge work, the largest part of the $2 billion would finance the second phase of retrofitting on regular state highway bridges. A total of 1,039 have either been retrofitted or work is underway, but another 1,202 projects remain to be started.
When comprehensive retrofit costs were first estimated after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, they were pegged at several hundred million dollars. Now, they are estimated at a total of $5 billion or more, at a time when simple maintenance of the freeway system is costing more and more.
The bond issue would allocate $56 million to reimburse the state's highway construction fund for a small part of the retrofitting already done.
An unprecedented provision would automatically put the proposition back on the next ballot in November if it doesn't pass this month.
The issues are so complicated, and the state's funding choices have grown so restricted, that many public officials have agonized over the measure.
For example, one assemblyman who signed a ballot pamphlet argument against it, Assemblyman George House (R-Hughson), is now having second thoughts.
House said he originally opposed the bonds because "some of our bridges realize millions of dollars in tolls and I thought they should pay some of the costs." Also, he said, "The interest the state will have to pay on this, $1.4 billion, is a lot of money, and we have to be very careful about overreaching. Instead of paying $2 billion, we actually would pay $3.4 [billion]."
But then he began to reconsider.
"We have construction projects in my district that have been held up for years," he said. "I took a second look at the needs and realized we have to move on some of them. I'm still cautious about bonded indebtedness, but . . . sometimes, you have to modify your opinion. We can't ignore our needs."
State Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno), who authored the measure, said that between Gov. Pete Wilson's desire not to raise the gas tax and the Bay Area legislators' determination not to dip into the tolls, "bonds were about the only option."
Ironically, though, the rise of the cost estimates means that both gas tax and toll increases ultimately may be necessary anyway. "If it passes, the bond issue merely postpones the crisis," a Sacramento highway finance expert said.
Compared to the well-financed campaigns for and against no-fault insurance and limits on lawyers contingency fees on the same ballot, campaign advertising on Proposition 192 appears to be limited.
Mike Testa, campaign manager for the proponents, said total donations amount to "just over $1 million," from an array of business and construction firms, and most advertising will be confined to San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The major support group is called Californians for Safe Highways and Bridges, which includes the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Taxpayers Assn. and the California Transit Assn.
Jim Knox, urban affairs director of the Planning and Conservation League, directing the opposing campaign, said, "We've raised less. We don't anticipate having the money for any advertising."
Other opponents include Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico), the Alliance of California Taxpayers and Involved Voters, the National Tax Limitation Committee and the Sierra Club.
Most bond issues have failed at the ballot box in recent years, and the opposition campaign has been making a series of public statements that raise sectional issues that have often proved telling in California politics.
Knox, for instance, suggested that Southern Californians would not want to vote for the bond issue because most of its benefits would go to Northern California, and particularly San Francisco.
In a side issue that is also sectional, state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), a prospective candidate for mayor of Los Angeles next year and a critic of the subway now being built in the city, inserted in Proposition 192 a stipulation that could impede subway construction.
This would require the state Transportation Commission to hold a hearing and issue a finding that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has adopted a plan that it can "reduce its debt, achieve solvency and restore affordable bus service for the transit-dependent population."
Nonetheless, the MTA has endorsed the retrofit measure. Transit officials say that if it passes, they will lobby the Legislature to repeal that provision.
Knox declared that if the bonds are voted down, "all the seismic projects will still go forward" since Caltrans puts its highest priority on retrofitting.
But a state budget summary released by Gov. Wilson recently indicated that if the measure failed and retrofitting remained the highest priority, then other highway construction projects will probably suffer.
Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this article.