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Gas-tax repeal backers to launch new campaign to halt California's bullet train

Gas-tax repeal backers to launch new campaign to halt California's bullet train
A conceptual rendering of the California high-speed rail project. (California High-Speed Rail Authority)

Backers of a November initiative to repeal the gas-tax increase said Monday they will also ask voters to approve a measure in 2020 that would provide funds to fix roads without charging Californians more at the pump, and would halt the state’s $77-billion high-speed rail project.

The ballot measure was announced on the same day the campaign against Proposition 6 launched television ads saying the repeal will jeopardize funds needed to make California roads and bridges safe.

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Supporters of the new initiative to be filed Tuesday say it addresses a criticism of Proposition 6 by Gov. Jerry Brown and others who warn that elimination of the higher gas tax and vehicle fees approved last year will leave the state billions of dollars short of what is needed to repair its deteriorating transportation network.

The new initiative is aimed at “fixing California’s roads without raising taxes on struggling working families of our state — and we’re proving how it can be done before voters are asked to vote ‘yes’ on Prop. 6, the gas-tax repeal initiative,” said Carl DeMaio, chairman of a campaign committee promoting the repeal measure, in a statement.

Opponents of Proposition 6 declined to comment Monday on the prospect of a new initiative, which they called “fantasy,” saying they are instead focused on fighting repeal of the increased gas tax. But they disputed DeMaio’s claim that there are adequate alternate funding sources, calling it “fuzzy math.”

The new ballot measure would direct the governor to stop construction of a high-speed rail system in California, and require any unspent funds not needed for repaying rail bonds to instead go to other transportation work.

The bullet train’s cancellation was included in the initiative to address concerns by the repeal camp that gas-tax money may eventually be used to make up a funding shortfall on high-speed rail, something supporters of the tax say is not legally possible.

The current budget for the bullet-train project is $77 billion, up from the original estimate of $33 billion when the voters approved a bond for the work in 2008. Due to delays, the full system is now planned to start operating in 2033.

The proposed 2020 ballot measure, which would need more than 500,000 signatures to qualify, would also amend the state Constitution by requiring all gas and diesel tax revenue go to road projects exclusively without any of the funds used for mass transit.

Creating a “lock box” to restrict the use of gas-tax money would provide at least $7.5 billion annually for road repairs, while last year’s increase in the gas tax is estimated to generate $5.2 billion each year, said DeMaio, a Republican activist, radio talk-show host and former San Diego City Council member.

The proposed new initiative would require all sales tax on cars and car insurance, as well as some fines for traffic tickets, to go to transportation projects, including buses, light rail and bike lanes in a second “lock box” that DeMaio estimates will hold $7.4 billion annually.

Opponents of Proposition 6 noted that voters in June approved Proposition 69, which required that vehicle license fees and diesel sales tax revenue be used only for transportation purposes.

Opponents of Proposition 6 said Monday that the state needs more than $130 billion over the next decade to restore the state highway and local street and road systems to a safe condition.

“Once again Carl DeMaio’s fuzzy math doesn’t add up, and puts the rest of us in jeopardy every day as we’re driving on California’s crumbling roads and bridges,” Kiana Valentine of the California State Assn. of Counties said in a statement released Monday. “We shouldn’t let him play politics with our public safety — that’s why California’s cities, counties and public safety leaders are staunchly opposed to this dangerous measure.”

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in April 2017 that increased the state excise tax on gasoline by 12 cents, raised the excise tax on diesel fuel by 20 cents, and boosted the sales tax rate on diesel. The measure, SB 1, also created a new annual “transportation improvement fee” on vehicle registrations ranging from $25 for cars valued at under $5,000 to $175 for cars worth $60,000 or more.

The new ballot measure would also require annual performance and efficiency repair audits on road and bridge repair projects.

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DeMaio said the new initiative would also strip the state of some power over transportation funds, and give that authority instead to city and county governments to spend on local priorities.

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