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California's crumbling roads won't fix themselves. Neither, it seems, will state lawmakers

California's crumbling roads won't fix themselves. Neither, it seems, will state lawmakers
Construction work signs are stacked against a fence. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Gov. Jerry Brown called a special legislative session last year to speed passage of a bill to repair California's crumbling roads. The politicians have failed miserably.

It's worse than gridlock. Lawmakers haven't even moved out of the driveway.

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Yes, it's symptomatic of why Donald Trump, although uncivil and ignorant, has attracted a desperate following of frustrated, angry voters. He's their Pied Piper fighting the arrogant establishment.

Never mind that Trump also is a dangerous buffoon.

But back to mousy Sacramento.

As legislators flail toward adjournment of their two-year regular session on Aug. 31, they're cranking out bills by the minute. Most are inconsequential, even nonsensical — favors for special-interest patrons. If they never became law, few would be missed.

The truly important issues — substantive tax reform, regulatory streamlining, public pension controls, highway fixes — aren't seriously being addressed. They're too tough.

Highway work needs money. That means tax increases. Enacting them requires a two-thirds vote in each legislative house.

"I'm not sure the analysis needs to go much further than that," says Brian Kelly, Brown's head of the state Transportation Agency and, before that, a longtime consultant to legislative leaders.

Ah, yes. Proposition 13. The dark side of property tax relief.

There once was a time — back in the infrastructure-building regimes of Govs. Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan — when lawmakers could raise some taxes and lower others on simple majority votes. That changed 38 years ago when voters passed the property tax-cutting initiative.

A little-noticed feature of Proposition 13 raised the legislative vote requirement for any tax hike to two-thirds. Now Republicans seem genetically incapable of voting for taxes.

Here's why gasoline taxes need to be raised to pay for highway repairs: They haven't been since the early 1990s and, back then, weren't adjusted for inflation. Consequently, the tax buck buys only half of what it did 22 years ago.

Moreover, vehicles are more fuel-efficient today, so motorists buy fewer gallons.

Brown last year said the gas tax was generating $2.3 billion annually for repairs, but $5.7 billion more was needed. There was a $136-billion backlog of necessary repairs on state highways and local roads.

So the governor called the special session. Lawmakers yawned.

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Potholes spread. Bridges weakened. Concrete crumbled. Roads got more congested.

A national transportation research organization called TRIP reported last week that poor roads in California are costing motorists about $54 billion annually. It found that 37% of major roads are in bad shape. A quarter of the bridges "are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete."

In Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Ana, the report said, drivers are spending $2,826 each year for vehicle repairs, personal delays and operating costs. It's roughly the same in San Francisco and Oakland; a little less in Sacramento.

"This is a problem that will not fix itself," notes Michele Martinez, a Santa Ana City Council member and president of the Southern California Assn. of Governments. "The only real solution is to make investing in our transportation infrastructure [an] urgent priority."

"It's past time for our elected officials in Sacramento to step up and deal with this problem," says Will Kempton, a former Caltrans director who heads the advocacy group Transportation California.

Brown did call the special session and offer a remedy of tax increases. But he hasn't personally leaned hard on legislators.

Two Northern California Democrats — Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose and Assemblyman Jim Frazier of Oakley — have led the fight, but haven't recruited enough followers.

Last week, in a last-gasp effort, they jointly proposed a $7.4-billion plan highlighted by a 17-cent per gallon increase in the gas tax. That was more than double Brown's previous $3.6-billion offering with a 6-cent gas tax hike.

Under the Beall-Frazier plan, there'd also be a 30-cent-per-gallon increase in the diesel tax, a $165 annual fee for zero-emission vehicles (they don't burn gas, after all) and regulatory streamlining. There'd be money for transit. And the state cap-and-trade kitty — fed by peddling permits to emit greenhouse gases — would be tapped.

But nothing can pass without some Republican support for raising taxes. And there's little prospect of that, even if Brown were willing to significantly compromise.  Democrats are just shy of the two-thirds needed, with 52 votes in the Assembly and 26 votes in the Senate.

"We can't get any [Republican] to support reasonable taxes," Beall says.

Should the governor push harder? "The governor himself clearly is not engaged," Beall asserts. "He wants us to push harder. I can only push so much."

He continues, "I kind of like the LBJ or Pat Brown style, calling people into your office, saying, 'I know you're worried about your reelection. I'll take care of that.'"

Referring indirectly to Pat Brown's son Jerry, the senator adds: "If all you want to do in your career is balance the budget, that's the easy thing. You can balance it on the back of infrastructure falling apart. Then that becomes another unfunded liability.

"We're putting ourselves in a hole that we'll never get out. I am pessimistic. I'm sick and tired of it."

There's vague talk of perhaps bringing the Legislature back in November after the election to pass a highway bill. Yeah, right! That's junket time — the time for special-interest-funded trips to fun places like Maui.

Fortunately for legislators, they won't have to drive.

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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