S. E. Williams
In January, the California Transportation Commission was forced to make major cuts to a number of transportation projects due to significant budget shortfalls—the result of falling gas prices. Cuts will affect transportation projects across the state including anticipated highway improvements in the Inland Empire.
A total of $754 million will be unceremoniously carved from the STIP budget over a five year period. These are the most significant cuts to the STIP budget in nearly twenty years.
The State Transportation Improvement Program or STIP is a five-year plan adopted by the California Transportation Commission (CTC). The plan considers future allocations of certain state transportation funds for improvements to state highways, intercity rail as well as regional highway and transit improvements. State law requires the CTC to update the STIP twice a year in even numbered years.
In a press release that announced the cut, CTC explained they were driven to do this by drops in the price of gasoline. The natural outgrowth of gas price reductions is a loss of the gas tax revenue directly tied to the price of gas.
In 2015, the state’s gas tax fell from 18 cents a gallon to 12 cents a gallon. The CTC anticipates a further drop of approximately two cents per gallon sometime this summer. Every penny drop in California’s gasoline tax carves $140 million from the CTC budget. State and local transportation projects are impacted as a result.
Transportation experts are concerned. As the price of gasoline continues to fall and consumers become even more dependent on vehicles powered by alternative energy, the state must rethink its strategy regarding how to generate the funding needed to maintain the state’s infrastructure. CTC officials agree the state’s gasoline tax has become a far less dependable source of funding.
With this major cut, the CTC threw down the gauntlet in its challenge to the state to design an alternative that will generate the funding needed for the agency to do its job. It has called upon Governor Brown and the state’s legislature to accelerate their efforts to identify an alternative revenue stream— the state’s highways and roadways must be maintained.
There is no question falling gasoline prices are good for California consumers as is having safe highways in good repair, to not only allow for the movement of people but goods and services as well. And yet, there is another element to this critical equation—jobs.
It is estimated that for every one billion dollars the state spends on highway and roadway repairs somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000 new jobs are created. This makes the issue of transportation funding even more impactful to the overall economic viability of the state.
Last year, Governor Jerry Brown requested a special legislative session to consider transportation funding. His current budget proposal includes $36 billion for transportation spending in the coming decade. These dollars will be partly funded by an annual vehicle fee of $65.
State legislators are considering a number of options to close the chasm that exists between the ever growing need for transportation maintenance and a shrinking revenue stream made worse by falling gas prices. Their ideas include higher taxes, the introduction of new fees, and an innovative proposal that shifts away from a gasoline tax to a tax based on the number of miles driven. As a matter of fact, Caltrans recently issued a call for volunteers to participate in a mileage tracking study designed to help prove-in the viability of such a proposal— for additional information regarding this project visit dot.ca.gov/road_charge/.
As might be expected, conservative legislators in Sacramento are opposed to any new taxes. Of course, any tax proposal requires a two-thirds vote of approval. At this point, that level of cooperation from Republican legislators seems unlikely. A compromise solution is needed in short order to give the state’s highways and roadways the attention they demand.
On January 27, the CTC sent a letter to state legislators explaining its fiscal dilemma titled “State Transportation Funding Crisis Continues to Worsen”.
In its letter the commission strongly urged legislators to work together to develop a compromise that will yield a significant down payment on the state’s transportation infrastructure needs and provide for meaningful reforms to its transportation program.
Announced CTC project cuts will impact the Inland Empire. In Riverside County it affects the French Valley Parkway Interchange Project along State Highway 15 in Temecula; Truck Climb and Descend truck lane lines along the “Badlands” segment of State Highway 60; and Phase 1 of the CV Link between Palm Springs and Coachella (CV Link is a 50-mile bicycle, pedestrian, and low-speed (up to 25 mph) electric vehicle pathway along the Whitewater River from Palm Springs to Coachella.
The list for San Bernardino County includes the expansion of HOV lanes between Haven Avenue and Ford Street on State Highway 10; widening of the 210 Freeway between Highland Avenue and San Bernardino Avenue; Phase 1 of a 4-lane expressway at Kramer Junction on State Highway 58; improvements to the interchange on the 215 Freeway at Mt. Vernon and Washington Street; and finally, reconstruction of the Barton Rd. interchange also on the 215 Freeway.
California’s transportation concerns have reached a near crisis level. As such, this is not the first time CTC raised these concerns to state officials. In its 2015 Annual Report, CTC recommended the legislature approve additional funding to support the state’s transportation program. January’s letter was intended to be a stark reminder of the magnitude of CTC funding shortfalls and the urgent need to respond to the criticality of the concern.
The agency stressed, “We have under-invested in our transportation infrastructure for the past several decades and have failed to fund needed repairs to an aging and failing system that we rely on to move people and goods in this state.” The commission further advised— the state has little capacity to pay for necessary road, transit and rail improvements required to meet the demands of a growing population and an expanding economy.
In addition to the Governor’s budget proposal there are in fact, two comprehensive transportation bills pending in the state legislature. Each would provide more revenue and implement serious program reforms. Now, the governor and sponsors of the legislative initiatives must seek a compromise in order to gain approval of a package that will begin to address the state’s crumbling infrastructure needs.
In its January correspondence, the California Transportation Commission summed up its concerns, recommendations, actions and expectations with the following closing statement, “Failure to act and to act quickly will have serious consequences for the future of California.”
Without an effective and timely solution to this crisis state infrastructure will continue to crumble while much needed projects may experience years of delay. A lack of new revenue source(s) for the CTC will strangle the state’s ability to add roads, rail lines and public transit.
The Voice will continue to follow this story.