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California's air quality is more important than rushing through a transportation funding bill

California Gov. Jerry Brown's pitch to lawmakers to pass a $52-billion transportation tax plan. (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

California lawmakers should absolutely raise the gas and diesel taxes to pay for road repairs. They should embrace the proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders to generate $5 billion a year for transportation by hiking fuel and vehicle taxes and imposing a first-ever "road improvement fee" on gas-tax-avoiding electric cars.

But in trying to get the two-thirds majority needed for the transportation funding package, lawmakers should be wary of compromises that undermine California's values. That's why lawmakers should not accept a trucking industry amendment that could make it harder to clean up Southern California's smoggy air. Brown and legislative leaders ought to back off their arbitrary deadline of today to pass the bill and take the time needed to get it right.

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California has a huge and growing backlog of transportation infrastructure repairs, from potholes and cracked asphalt to deteriorating bridges. California has long relied on fuel taxes to help pay for transportation infrastructure, but they haven't kept pace with inflation. Meanwhile, more fuel efficient vehicles have reduced the revenue as well, contributing to the backlog. There is simply not enough money in the state budget to pay for the estimated $73 billion in deferred maintenance without taking away other vital services. It makes sense to raise fuel taxes and continue the tradition of funding road repairs with user fees.

The current proposal, however, also includes an amendment added at the last minute to gain the support of the trucking industry, which would face a significant increase in diesel taxes. The provision says that regulators cannot require truck owners to retire, replace, retrofit or repower their trucks within 13 to 18 years of their model year or when the vehicle hits 800,000 miles. Trucking companies have pushed for similar legislation before, seeking assurance that when they buy expensive new trucks, they won't be forced to upgrade them to meet new air quality rules.

State air-quality officials insist that the amendment won't hinder efforts to ensure the cleanest, least-polluting trucks are on the road, but environmentalists and regional air quality regulators disagree. The stakes are particularly high in Southern California, where diesel-fueled big rigs are the top source of smog-forming emissions and pose a health risk to communities along major highways. In the coming years, the South Coast Air Quality Management District is expected to consider rules that would require companies to switch to zero- or near-zero-emission trucks, as well as rules that would require cleaner trucks serving the region's ports, warehouses and railyards. AQMD officials warn that the amendment — even after it was tweaked ostensibly to address environmentalists' concerns — will likely lead to lawsuits if Southern California and other regions try to enact new rules that affect trucks.

Some in Sacramento say environmentalists and health advocates should stop complaining. Nobody gets everything they want in a political compromise, and in this case environmentalists would get more dollars for public transit, bike lanes and other infrastructure investments to help get people out of cars. But a compromise shouldn't undermine a top state priority, cleaner air. Brown and legislative leaders have repeatedly pledged to block any attempt by President Trump to roll back California's ambitious climate change agenda. Why, then, would they sign off on an amendment designed to stymie Southern California's efforts to clear the air?

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