A sign announcing a Senate Bill 1 project on Interstate 5 in San Diego. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Four years ago, Will Kempton, then executive director of Transportation California and a former Caltrans director, said the state’s roads were “the worst I have seen.”

A few months later, the state began collecting revenue from a $52 billion, 10-year fuel tax hike to raise enough revenue to bring up to date one of the most broken street-and-highway systems in the country.

The reality, however, hasn’t matched up with the promises.

Progress in making repairs, the Los Angeles Times reports, is “lagging.” Worse, “officials now say the funding is sufficient only to complete less than half of the work needed.” 

Not even Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “$2 billion shot of new money” from his surplus-filled May budget revision for bridge and road repair will be sufficient to catch up to the needs. Nor will the next installment of Senate Bill 1’s tax increases, a 5.1 cents-a-gallon levy arriving on July 1.

How can this be?

According to the Times, Sacramento has allocated about $16 billion from 2017’s Senate Bill 1 for roads and highways. Yet “state officials say that much more money is needed to address shortcomings in the transportation system. Caltrans estimates it will need $122.9 billion over 10 years ‘to maintain the existing assets’ due in part to increasing costs and the age of the infrastructure.”

It would be helpful if policymakers didn’t have a habit of diverting revenues for road work to unrelated projects. But transportation funds are as politicized as any of the dollars funneled through Sacramento. For instance, it took the state only a matter of months after SB1 was passed and signed to move motor fuel tax revenues to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state Department of Parks and Recreation, the General Fund, and local law enforcement. 

Revenues also end up in political pits that have no bottom. The state “devotes a greater share of its transportation funds to public transit than most other states,” says George Mazur, a Davis-based principal of the transportation planning firm Cambridge Systematics.

Newsom has also used the money from higher fuel taxes as political leverage. Two years ago, his office announced that revenues generated by SB1 “may be withheld from any jurisdiction that does not have a compliant housing element and has not zoned and entitled for its updated annual housing goals.”

In 2019, the Caltrans inspector general determined that the department had misspent millions, and it disallowed more than $13 million in state and local expenditures. None of the dollars was from SB1 revenues.

A more recent Caltrans audit showed just how irresponsible the department is with other people’s money. Though not a bank, it had been in the habit of handing out salary advances, and then failing to collect on them, wasting “as much as $1.5 million.” The inspector general said the “forfeiture balance might have risen from $1.5 million to nearly $3 million if our investigation had not prompted it to take action.”

Proposition 69 was supposed to have ended the practice of siphoning off dollars by putting transportation funds in a “lock box” where they couldn’t be raided by politicians. But since its passage in 2018 — with an 81-19 support margin — Newsom ordered SB1 revenues to be redirected from repair projects “to help reverse the trend of increased fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation sector.”

Further holding back progress are the steep costs involved road construction and repair. According to the Reason Foundation’s most recent Annual Highway report, California spends $186,549 per lane-mile on its roads, nearly twice the U.S. average of $94,870.

Much of the added costs are attributable to generous state labor laws. Only in Washington are highway maintenance workers paid more than in California, where the average yearly wage is almost $55,000.

The state’s steep cost of living — the consequence of poor public policy — as well as a strict regulatory regime, punctuated by the California Environmental Quality Act, also increase project expenses

Californians desperately need both new and expanded highways, and existing roads repaired. The lousy system costs “Californians $61 billion annually due to congestion-related delays, traffic collisions, and increased vehicle operating costs caused by poor road conditions,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

But Sacramento has for too long had other priorities. The Blue State agenda both crowds out basic needs and robs drivers of the infrastructure maintenance they’ve paid for.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

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