Are California transportation officials pulling a bait and switch on gas tax funds?
What really irks people about politicians is when they sell them one thing and deliver something else. It’s called bait and switch.
It breeds cynicism and mistrust of government. It becomes even harder for citizens to follow wannabe political leaders. Voters say a pox on all career politicians.
It leads to the election of outsider demagogues like Donald Trump.
A current episode in Sacramento may or may not fall to the level of bait and switch. It’s murky. But there’s a stench that’s drawing attention.
It involves — what else? — gasoline taxes and promised highway improvements. Some money is being shifted from road construction to commuter rail in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help fight California’s war against climate change.
The Newsom administration vehemently denies it’s a bait and switch. But it doesn’t deny attempting to move the money from roads to rail. It’s right there on a website and in print.
Republicans are shouting they told us so during their unsuccessful ballot proposition campaign last year to repeal 2017 legislation that sharply increased fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for highway improvements. They warned that Sacramento Democrats couldn’t be trusted, that they’d raid the gas tax money to fund non-road projects.
Actually, the legislation allowed for using the estimated $5.2 billion in annual new revenue for a wide variety of transportation projects. It allotted 65% for road and bridge repairs, 20% for rail and transit, some for better truck access around ports and a bit for bicycle and pedestrian lanes.
The problem now for Democrats is that their campaign pitch for saving the program emphasized regional highway improvements almost exclusively. In TV and radio ads, voters were promised local road repairs. They didn’t hear much, if anything, about rail lines or bicycle paths.
So what the Newsom administration is attempting seems perfectly legal. It’s just politically tone deaf given what voters were promised, compounded by their long-standing mistrust of politicians.
Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Lakewood basically agrees. Legislators raised gas taxes “with some clear promises ... that this money would be used ... almost exclusively for roads and repairs,” Rendon said.
“Now is not the time to go back on those promises.”
Here’s what the current flap is about:
A few days before Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke at a Climate Week summit in New York last month, he attempted to burnish his credentials as a global warming warrior.
The governor issued an executive order that, among other things, directed the State Transportation Agency “to leverage the more than $5 billion in annual … spending for construction, operations and maintenance to help reverse the trend of increased fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The governor ordered the agency to “reduce congestion through innovative strategies designed to encourage people to shift from cars to other modes of transportation.” He directed it to “fund transportation options that … reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as transit, walking, biking and other active modes.”
Two weeks later, the California Department of Transportation issued a biennial report updating its Interregional Transportation Improvement Program. In it, three road projects were listed for funding “deletion.” The $32.5 million in deletions plus other road project savings totaled $61.3 million. It was “to be held in reserve for priority rail projects and other priorities aligned with [Newsom’s] executive order,” the report read.
One targeted road project is the widening of dangerous State Route 46 in eastern San Luis Obispo County, very close to where actor James Dean perished in an auto accident on Sept. 30, 1955. Not much has changed on that road since.
Having just finished filming “Giant,” Dean was driving his new Porsche Spyder west toward the coast on 46. A college student driving a Ford Tudor in the opposite direction turned left across the actor’s path onto State Route 41 headed toward Fresno. They collided and Dean died almost instantly.
They’re finally planning to outfit that intersection with a safer cloverleaf interchange. This funding isn’t being touched. But adjacent on 46 to the east, Caltrans proposes deleting $15.5 million for substantial road widening on Antelope Grade. This is a heavily traveled route from the San Joaquin Valley to the Central Coast.
“It’s called ‘Blood Alley,’” says local Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-Templeton). “This section of the road has a fatality rate three times the state average. The sooner we get this thing built to modern freeway standards, the sooner we save lives.
“This is the kind of thing we were promised from the gas tax.”
Two other targeted road-widening projects are on Highway 99 in Madera and Tulare counties.
“The governor has stepped in it,” says Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a former Fresno mayor. “What the hell is he thinking?”
He probably wasn’t.
“If they can do this to us,” Patterson adds, “they can do it to any road project in the state. I say this is just the beginning.”
State Transportation Secretary David Kim says the three projects weren’t ready to proceed. And the funds can be reapplied for in two years.
“This is still the second inning,” Kim says. “This was a deprogramming action. But deprogramming is not the same as abandonment, deletion, cancellation or annihilation.”
What does “deprogramming” mean? “Not moving forward,” Kim replies. “Doesn’t mean dead. It’s being put on hold.”
OK, but the Caltrans report clearly reads funding “deletion.”
And these projects should not be “put on hold.”
Any deletions have to be approved by the California Transportation Commission. It should reject Caltrans’ proposal and restore all funding.
Get more local rail money from the bullet train.
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