‘This is the worst I have seen’: California’s roads are in dire shape, says former Caltrans director

Will Kempton, then-director of the California Department of Transportation, greets dignitaries during a kickoff event for new train service to San Luis Obispo in 2004. Kempton, who is retiring, called the condition of the state's roads the worst he's ever seen.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

In more than four decades as a top transportation planner in California, Will Kempton says the state’s roads have never been in as bad condition as they are right now.

Kempton, 69, who is retiring as executive director of the advocacy group Transportation California, said he is “frustrated and disappointed” that California has failed for decades to agree on a plan to pay for a $136-billion backlog of repairs on state highways and local roads. Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders said they will take another crack at reaching a deal during the next two months, which Kempton said is welcome news.

“This is the worst I have seen,” he said of street conditions in California.


Kempton, a former Caltrans director, thinks the seriousness of the issue has sunk in with state leaders and residents to the point where action might finally be taken this year. He said he is encouraged by recent comments by Brown and lawmakers who set an April 6 deadline for reaching a transportation funding deal.

But Kempton said reaching a deal that includes raising taxes and fees will not be easy, even though the situation is dire.

“The transportation system is in bad shape,” he said. “We have just underinvested in our transportation infrastructure for decades, and it’s coming home to roost. Particularly after the recent storms, our roads are in very, very bad shape.”

Starting work at Caltrans in 1976, Kempton served five years as head of the massive agency under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger before becoming executive director of the Orange County Transportation Authority in 2009.

In the 1980s, Kempton served as executive director of the Santa Clara County Traffic Authority, managing its billion-dollar highway construction program.

He has been executive director of Transportation California, a nonprofit that advocates infrastructure investment, off and on since 2013, with a one-year stint in 2015 as executive director of the California Transportation Commission.

Former Assemblyman Roger Dickinson is taking over Thursday for Kempton, who said it was time to retire after 43 years in public service.

The road system he leaves behind is in bad shape in part because state leaders have not kept funding on pace. It has been 23 years since California last approved a ballot measure increasing the gas tax to fund transportation projects, and past taxes lacked automatic increases tied to inflation.

Inaction, inflation and more fuel-efficient cars have led to road repair receiving half the funding it did in 1994, according to Fix Our Roads, a coalition of 53 groups including the League of California Cities, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

There are at least four competing proposals for addressing the transportation needs, with Republican plans excluding any tax hikes.

Updates from Sacramento »

State Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, has proposed a plan that would increase money to road repairs and mass transit by $6 billion annually in part by increasing the per-gallon gas tax by 12 cents in phases over three years.

Beall would set the price-based per-gallon excise tax at 17.3 cents, increase the diesel tax by 20 cents and boost the sales tax by 4 percent. He would also create a $100 fee on zero-emission cars such as electrical vehicles and increase the annual registration fee for all vehicles by $38 per vehicle. The proposal is backed by Fix Our Roads.

“California drivers are paying the price for the state’s inaction,” the group said in a letter last week to state officials, noting that poor road conditions cost the average driver in California $762 in annual repairs.

Brown has proposed a plan with smaller tax increases than those Beall put forward. It would increase spending on transportation by $4.3 billion a year for the next decade.

Republicans have refused to support tax increases. Assembly Republicans plan to release a plan Monday that would increase spending on transportation by $7.8 billion the first year and $5.6 billion each subsequent year without increasing the gas tax, vehicle registration fee and diesel excise tax.

Instead, GOP lawmakers said they would end the diversion of $1 billion annually from truck-weight fees to pay debt on transportation bonds; reallocate to transportation $2.2 billion that was lent to the debt fund; and take existing vehicle sales, use and insurance taxes that currently go to the general fund and instead provide them to the transportation program.

“We can actually fund transportation projects in a responsible way without raising taxes and fees,” said Assemblyman Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield), who is vice chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee. “We shouldn’t fund transportation on the backs of hardworking Californians.”

The dispute over whether tax increases are needed led to the failure of a special legislative session called last year by Brown on transportation financing. It has taken some time to get the seriousness of the transportation issue onto the public’s radar.

“I think we have succeeded in doing that,” Kempton said. “Everyone understands there is a need that has to be addressed, but the question is how do you pay for that. That’s the challenge facing the Legislature.”

In November, Democrats won a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, which theoretically would allow them to raise taxes without any Republican votes. However, a number of moderate Democrats, some newly elected, would have to be won over to get new taxes approved.

“It’s going to be a tough vote for them,” Kempton said of Democrats attempting to raise taxes and fees.

Hearings on Beall’s proposal begin Tuesday.

Kempton hopes a solution can be found this year, but he predicts it will be a heavy lift.

“There are challenges,” Kempton said. “This is not by any stretch of the imagination going to be easy. But the governor and the legislative leadership seem to be committed to getting something done.”

Twitter: @mcgreevy99


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