Column: If Republicans have their way, California highways stand to lose big under Trump’s infrastructure plan

David Guerrera urges motorists in Corona to sign a petition for a proposed ballot measure to repeal the increase in California's gas tax.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

President Trump’s infrastructure proposal isn’t worth much. And what it is worth for California, the state’s Republican delegation in Congress is trying to destroy.

That’s the irony. More precisely, it’s cynical politics outweighing needed public works.

This is what I mean:

Under Trump’s plan, the federal government would pay for 20% of a major infrastructure project, such as a bridge repair. State and local governments would need to foot 80%.

California is in excellent shape for that one-sided deal because last year it raised gas taxes and vehicle registration fees to pay for repairing dilapidated highways. So it has a pot of money eligible for the Trump dollars.


But California’s Republican House members are pouring big bucks into a proposed November ballot measure to repeal the gas tax and registration fee hikes.

Why? It’s looking like a rotten election for Republicans, especially in California. They’re in danger of losing House seats. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats nationally to recapture control of the House. In California, it’s highly unlikely there’ll be an exciting GOP candidate for governor or the U.S. Senate who can draw Republican voters to the polls. So party strategists hope an anti-tax measure will attract them.

“The base vote needs some motivation,” veteran Republican consultant Dave Gilliard told me last fall. He was running the gas tax repeal campaign.

Gilliard said he told Republicans: “Democrats handed us a gift by passing this very unpopular bill and we should take advantage of it.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) has contributed $100,000 from his campaign kitty into the signature-gathering effort to qualify the measure for the ballot. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) has donated $50,000. Republican Reps. Mimi Walters of Irvine and Ken Calvert of Corona have each put up $25,000.

Republican businessman John Cox, a dark horse candidate for governor, is a big bankroller. He has dumped in $250,000.


Presumably the Republican House members will vote for Trump’s plan in Congress.

“It’s hypocritical to support a federal infrastructure plan that requires states to put up the majority of money while simultaneously seeking to repeal the ability of your home state to participate in that plan,” says Michael Quigley, executive director of the California Alliance for Jobs, a labor-management coalition.

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“It’s inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst,” echoes Peter Tateishi, chief executive of the Associated General Contractors of California. “It’s disappointing that these people are dismantling California’s advantage and making it harder for the state to compete” for the federal money.

One of the repeal effort’s originators and loudest advocates is San Diego radio talk show host Carl DeMaio, a former city councilman. Like most Republicans, he contends that Sacramento Democrats have wasted gas tax money on non-highway ventures.

“They’re a pack of thieves and a bunch of liars,” DeMaio says.

“When California state politicians commit to putting 100% of our existing gas tax into roads, then they will have credibility. If we did that, we’d have the best roads in the country. They’ve stolen and diverted the money time and time again. How much money into bike lanes? Light rail? Pensions for Caltrans engineers?”

Don’t know about the pensions. But he’s right about the bike lanes and light rail. Some goes there.


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The Democratic bill raised the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and diesel by 20 cents. It also imposed a new annual vehicle fee, ranging from $25 to $175. Of the $5.2 billion in projected annual revenue, 65% is earmarked for roads and bridges, 20% for transit and a portion for truck access around ports. There’s also some money for bicycle and pedestrian lanes.

Gov. Jerry Brown has budgeted $4.6 billion for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Gas tax money for bicycle and pedestrian lanes is a political and practical necessity, says Matt Cate, executive director of the California State Assn. of Counties.

“The reality in California is that you need to have a mix of transportation projects to get something passed in the Legislature.”

“In modern America,” he adds, “cars benefit from a complete transportation system. While bicyclers don’t pay at the pump, as a motorist I benefit from getting bicycles out of the traffic lane, and pedestrians on a sidewalk. And we need transit.”

Yes, the more people who ride buses or light rail, the easier it is on motorists. So that’s money well spent.

Before last year, the gas tax hadn’t been raised in California since 1990. It wasn’t adjusted for inflation. So the tax was buying half what it once did. Moreover, cars had become more fuel efficient, so less gas was being pumped.


California wasn’t alone — 26 states, many of them very red, have raised fuel taxes in the last six years to pay for road repairs. They’ll also be standing in line for Trump dollars if his bill ever passes.

Although the president pitches it as a $1.5-trillion plan over 10 years, only $200 billion would be federal money. It used to be that the feds would pay 80% and the states 20%. Under Trump, it’s reversed.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” Cate says, “but better than nothing.”

It will be nothing for California highways if the Republican tax repeal qualifies for the ballot — as expected — and passes in November.

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