Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Legislature are putting forth a proposal to raise $52.4 billion to improve roads and bridges through increased gas taxes, higher registration fees for vehicles and a $100 annual charge on zero-emission vehicles.
The 10-year plan, which the Legislature intends to codify with a constitutional amendment, would impose a boost on gasoline excise taxes, raising them by 12 cents per gallon over the existing 18-cent base excise tax. The increase would be the largest in state history, and the first increase in gas taxes in 23 years, to start Nov. 1.
According to Brown's office, the tax increase should cost most drivers no more than $10 a month. The concurrent new registration fees, calculated on a sliding scale based on the value of the vehicle, would average around $48 per year. All collection and management of the funds will be undertaken by a new government entity, created by a constitutional amendment, that will try to ensure responsible spending.
"California has a massive backlog of broken infrastructure that has been neglected far too long," Brown said during a press conference last week. "Fixing the roads will not get cheaper by waiting – or ignoring the problem. This is a smart plan that will improve the quality of life in California."
Leadership in the Senate and the Assembly expect the measure to come to vote this Thursday, just eight days after Brown's announcement. Because the measure is a tax increase, when it goes to a vote before the Senate and Assembly's spring recess, it'll need a two-thirds majority to pass. Although these chambers in California are dominated by Democrats, the majority vote might still be a tall order, as Republican legislators have spoken out adamantly against the measure.
"I think it's unconscionable that 20 percent of our population is at poverty or below, and they're gonna have to make the decision of whether they buy food for their families or they're gonna buy gas so they can get to their jobs," Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) said of the potential undue cost for lower-income families. "It'll be a bigger percentage of their overall income. Paying $65 for your car fee and 12 cents per gallon for gas for someone that is making $250,000 won't notice this tax. But if you're making $25,000 per year, it's a big chunk of change – $5 per month, $10 per month, that's a lot of money for someone who's under the poverty line."
Moorlach is of the camp of Republicans in the Senate and Assembly who believe that the funds to fix roads and bridges could be sourced from elsewhere – namely by cutting minimum wage restrictions in the state, and by laying off or outsourcing the architects and engineers who work for the government.
However, Brown and supporters suggest that Californians are already bearing the costs of poor roads, spending more on repairs to their vehicles than they would be with the proposed tax hike and fees.
Citing a study by TRIP, a private nonprofit organization that analyzes the economic and technical data of surface transportation issues, Brown's office said that "each California driver spends approximately $700 per year in extra vehicle repairs caused by rough roads." The study estimates that California motorists spend a total of $53.6 billion annually on additional vehicle operating costs, congestion-related delays and traffic crashes. In the Los Angeles/Long Beach/Santa Ana metropolitan area – where the study says more than 80 percent of roads are either poor or mediocre in quality, as measured in amount of rutting, cracks and potholes – this additional cost is $2,826 per driver.
The same study details that 25 percent of California bridges show significant deterioration or don't meet current design standards. Although the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act provided modest increases in federal highway and transit spending, Brown's office said this new Road and Repair Accountability Act will both supply more adequate funds and ensure they're spent properly, with the appointment of an inspector general to show that the dollars are spent "efficiently, effectively and in compliance with state and federal requirements."
Because California already pays among the highest gas taxes in the U.S., Senate and Assembly Republicans have spoken out against the plan in several joint statements: "The transportation proposal announced by the Capitol Democrats is a costly and burdensome plan that forces ordinary Californians to bail out Sacramento for years of neglecting our roads." But even some who will bear additional fees for not using gas in their vehicles still support the measure.
"California's always faced with these issues of reforming its infrastructure and accommodating the increasing population, and there's a big price tag that comes with that," said USC journalism professor Gabriel Kahn, who drives an electric vehicle. "It's always a struggle to sell that to the people, but certainly, I don't think anyone would deny the need for a major infusion of investment into road infrastructure."
California has long incentivized drivers to make the switch to electric vehicles, but the more drivers the government pushes into electric cars, the less the state will be able to reap at the pump. Even with the proposed $100 flat fee, it will remain cheaper for Kahn and others to drive electric cars than pay for gasoline.
Either way, Kahn acknowledges that there's "no way California can kick this can down the road anymore – they have to start repairing." And while Kahn said a consumption tax can be "disturbing," hitting lower-income families more heavily than wealthier ones, measures like this would incentivize individuals to drive less and consume less gas, and are still ultimately more cost-effective than expensive repairs caused by damage from poor roads down the line.
While Brown, Kahn and other supporters make an economic case, the vote could come down to ideology. Because of the proposed tax increase, the constitutional amendment may necessitate the vote of every Democratic legislator in order to pass with the required two-thirds majority.