Road to Ruin: The Transportation Fiscal Cliff

(Updated April 3, 2014: Watch our four videos on the Transportation Fiscal Cliff to learn more about how we got here and what policy-makers can do to restore needed transportation funds — without raising taxes.)

(Updated April 25, 2014: Learn more about possible short-term solutions, including restoring truck weight fees to highway maintenance. And listen to our latest radio commercial on that subject.)

Fiscal Cliff Chart through 12-13Spending on transportation has not kept up with our growing population and aging infrastructure for many years. But now, state funding is being cut in half, and this transportation fiscal cliff will only make matters worse.

California’s transportation system was once the envy of the world. In the 1950s, ′60s and  ′70s we built highways, freeways and the West’s first postwar mass transit system.

But for too many years, we failed to make the investments needed to properly maintain it — and the Legislature frequently raided highway accounts to backfill state budget shortfalls. As a result, our aging roads and highways began to take a beating.

Over the past 10 years, the California Alliance for Jobs has successfully led efforts to ensure that the taxes motorists pay at the pump are protected from the politicians. We’ve also worked to get new critically needed funding.

In 2006, Californians took a big first step towards getting back on track with the passage of Proposition 1B, a $19 billion bond measure to pay for hundreds of major projects that had been needed for years, including:

  • adding a fourth bore to the Caldecott Tunnel in Oakland
  • rebuilding Doyle Drive, connecting San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge
  • building the Lincoln Bypass near Sacramento
  • making numerous improvements along Highway 99 through the Central Valley and I-80 from the Bay Area to the Nevada border.
  • and the massive I-5 widening projects in L.A. County.

(Click here for comprehensive reports on projects funded by Prop. 1B)

Prop. 1B accomplished a lot, but it was only a down payment to help offset years of neglect. Now, as Prop. 1B winds down, California is staring at a looming transportation fiscal cliff that will cut our state and local transportation funds in half from where they were just two years ago.

Most important, California needs to develop a revenue stream that will cover the cost of maintaining our existing system.

Total state and local investment peaked at just under $6 billion in 2011-12. But that figure is falling to about $3 billion a year for the foreseeable future unless action is taken.

To properly maintain the state highway network alone costs $7 billion a year. California is only investing $2 billion a year. As the California Transportation Commission warned in its 2011 Statewide Transportation Needs Assessment:

“California’s transportation system is in jeopardy. Underfunding—decade after decade—has led to the decay of one of the state’s greatest assets.”

The report also found that:

  • repair and maintenance needs will exceed expected funding by $295 billion through 2021.
  • 58 percent of state roads need rehabilitation and/or pavement maintenance.
  • 20 percent of state bridges require major maintenance or preventative work.
  • and 6 percent of the state’s bridges need to be replaced.

At the local level, 55 percent of roads need to be repaired or replaced. And the problems will only get worse. The Transportation Commission projects that the percentage of roads in failed condition is expected to climb from 6.6 percent to 25 percent by 2020, and that 38 percent of local bridges will be structurally deficient by then.

The continued neglect of the state’s infrastructure is a threat to our economy as well, warns the advocacy group Transportation California:

“California deserves a 21st Century integrated transportation system. Our ability to attract (and retain) world-class companies to California is becoming increasingly dependent on our ability to deliver a modern transportation system which can efficiently move goods and service around and through our state.”

We can fix our transportation system. To begin with, reforms are needed to:

  • Eliminate duplicative processes and speed up government approvals.
  • And utilize new technologies for better speed and service.
  • And develop partnerships with the private sector to inject private-sector money into new capital projects that will improve commutes, increase the flow of goods and services and strengthen a vital part of our infrastructure that made California the eighth-largest economy in the world.

But funding sources are needed as well. The Alliance is pursuing two short-term remedies — restoring truck weight fees to transportation and urging the state to repay loans from transportation accounts early. Read more about these proposals here.