Can rapid re­sponse to road re­pairs stop re­peal?

Of­fi­cials hope stepped-up pace of work ‘res­onates with vot­ers’ tempted to undo gas tax hike.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Patrick McGreevy

SACRA­MENTO — Mo­torists on the 605 Free­way may have re­cently no­ticed their ride get­ting smoother when they pass through El Monte — at least state of­fi­cials hope they have.

Three months af­ter the state be­gan col­lect­ing an ex­tra 12 cents per gal­lon in gas taxes, of­fi­cials have put dozens of road and bridge re­pair projects on the fast track. With mo­men­tum grow­ing for a Repub­li­can-led cam­paign to re­peal the gas tax in­crease, Sen­ate Bill 1, ner­vous pro­po­nents of the in­crease are hop­ing that the flurry of con­struc­tion ac­tiv­ity on Cal­i­for­nia high­ways will save the $54 bil­lion the levies will gen­er­ate dur­ing the next decade for the state’s badly ne­glected road sys­tem.

The stakes were raised Mon­day when Pres­i­dent Trump an­nounced plans to pro­vide up to $200 bil­lion in fed­eral funds for road and other in­fra­struc­ture projects, fo­cus­ing heav­ily on the abil­ity of states to pro­vide sub­stan­tial match­ing funds to re­ceive a share of fed­eral money.

“The pro­posed re­peal of SB 1 would not only rob our state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments of vi­tally needed state fund­ing, but now we learn that it could also ham­per our abil­ity to re­ceive fed­eral fund­ing,” said Matt Cate, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia State Assn. of Coun­ties.

So far, $503 mil­lion in SB 1 rev­enue has been re­ceived, some of which went to cities and coun­ties. The Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion has spent $118 mil­lion in gas tax money on main­te­nance projects, com­plet­ing 11 jobs and award­ing con­tracts for 15 oth­ers. In ad­di­tion, work has be­gun on 252 oth­ers, such as de­sign and nec­es­sary en­gi­neer­ing and en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies, said Matt Rocco, a Cal­trans spokesman.

“Cal­trans’ quick work shows we are fix­ing and re­pair­ing the roads now,” said Sen. James Beall (D-San Jose), au­thor of the gas tax bill. “I think the quick turnaround proves that we can get the job done. I hope that res­onates with vot­ers.”

In some cases, the ex­pec­ta­tion of new tax rev­enue al­lowed Cal­trans to front ex­ist­ing money so projects could be com­pleted ear­lier with the idea that the costs would be re­plen­ished as the SB 1 funds ar­rive.

Projects com­pleted early in­clude a $2.6-mil­lion job, which wrapped up Dec. 4, that resur­faced three miles of In­ter­state 605 be­tween El Monte and West Cov­ina. Next month, Cal­trans is

sched­uled to spend $1.7 mil­lion to resur­face nearly seven miles of the 5 Free­way be­tween the 605 Free­way and Wash­ing­ton Boule­vard in the Los An­ge­les area.

An ad­di­tional 26 large road and high­way im­prove­ment projects are in the de­sign and pre-con­struc­tion stages in Los An­ge­les County, and pre­par­ing to break ground in the com­ing months — much ear­lier than they would have started with­out the gas tax in­crease, of­fi­cials said.

The ex­pe­dit­ing of projects is tak­ing place as a group of Repub­li­can mem­bers of Congress from Cal­i­for­nia nears the fin­ish line in col­lect­ing sig­na­tures for a pro­posed bal­lot mea­sure to re­peal the gas tax in­crease that took ef­fect Nov. 1, and the rise in ve­hi­cle fees that kicked in Jan. 1.

State of­fi­cials hope that vot­ers will see pot­holes dis­ap­pear and, as a re­sult, may be less likely to sign the ini­tia­tive pe­ti­tion or vote for it should it make this year’s Nov. 6 bal­lot.

Op­po­nents of the gas tax don’t be­lieve the state con­struc­tion spree will work to dis­suade vot­ers from re­peal­ing the tax hikes.

The op­po­nents are close to col­lect­ing the 538,000 sig­na­tures needed to qual­ify the bal­lot ini­tia­tive, ac­cord­ing to for­mer San Diego City Coun­cil­man Carl DeMaio, chair­man of Re­form Cal­i­for­nia, a group push­ing the re­peal ini­tia­tive.

“Vot­ers are smarter than the politi­cians think — they know that any projects be­ing done to­day are just win­dow dress­ing as part of the cam­paign to keep this tax in place,” DeMaio said. “Once the cam­paign is over, the projects will dis­ap­pear and the money will be stolen again.”

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the tax in­crease into law in April. Start­ing Nov. 1, the mea­sure raised the state ex­cise tax on gaso­line by 12 cents and in­creased the ex­cise tax on diesel fuel by 20 cents. The sales tax rate on diesel was boosted from 9% to 13%.

Those pro­vi­sions brought the state an ex­tra $444 mil­lion in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber, the last months for which fig­ures are avail­able.

Be­gin­ning Jan. 1, the law cre­ated a new an­nual “trans­porta­tion im­prove­ment fee” on ve­hi­cle reg­is­tra­tions rang­ing from $25 for cars val­ued at un­der $5,000 to $175 for cars worth $60,000 or more. That fee brought in $59 mil­lion in early pay­ments dur­ing the last two months of 2017.

In lieu of gas taxes, elec­tric-car own­ers will pay a $100 an­nual fee start­ing in 2020.

The taxes and fees, when fully im­ple­mented, are ex­pected to gen­er­ate $5.4 bil­lion an­nu­ally. This bud­get year, which ends June 30, the take is es­ti­mated to be $2.8 bil­lion. Next year that is pro­jected to rise to $4.6 bil­lion.

Some of the money will go to cities and coun­ties. In Jan­uary, the Cal­i­for­nia Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion awarded more than $173 mil­lion to 57 lo­cal projects — money that would be al­lo­cated in fis­cal years 201718 and 2018-19.

Cal­trans Di­rec­tor Mal­colm Dougherty said the ap­proval of SB 1 let the depart­ment ex­pand the num­ber of projects funded this year and ac­cel­er­ated work on dozens of re­pair jobs.

The state is in a race to get as many projects started as it can in the face of a threat that vot­ers might re­peal the tax in­creases in Novem­ber.

“We are mov­ing for­ward as quickly and as ap­pro­pri­ately as pos­si­ble to bring the trans­porta­tion im­prove­ments to the peo­ple of Cal­i­for­nia,” Dougherty said. “If the ref­er­en­dum were suc­cess­ful, then that would ter­mi­nate any of those fu­ture in­vest­ments.”

To make sure the pub­lic sees progress be­ing made, Cal­trans has cre­ated a web­site that al­lows res­i­dents to fol­low the sta­tus of projects through­out the state.

If the bal­lot mea­sure qual­i­fies, vot­ers can ex­pect to see Brown out cam­paign­ing against it and tout­ing com­pleted projects.

“I will do ev­ery­thing in my power to de­feat any re­peal ef­fort that gets on the bal­lot, you can count on that,” Brown said last month in his State of the State ad­dress.

The flood of con­struc­tion work un­der­way will help the gas tax po­lit­i­cally if the re­peal mea­sure makes the bal­lot, ac­cord­ing to Roger Dickinson, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Trans­porta­tion Cal­i­for­nia, an ad­vo­cacy group of con­struc­tion firms and la­bor unions.

“Projects are un­der­way all across our state to in­crease safety, ease con­ges­tion, fill pot­holes, and re­pair bridges and over­passes,” Dickinson said. “Cal­i­for­ni­ans want to see these im­prove­ments keep go­ing. If the SB 1 re­peal ini­tia­tive makes it to the Novem­ber bal­lot, it will be de­feated.”

Allen J. Sch­aben Los Angeles Times

CAL­TRANS has cre­ated a web­site that al­lows res­i­dents to fol­low the sta­tus of projects in the state.

Allen J. Sch­aben Los Angeles Times

A NUM­BER of road projects have been ex­pe­dited be­cause of an­tic­i­pated tax rev­enue. Next month, Cal­trans is set to resur­face the 5 Free­way be­tween the 605 Free­way and Wash­ing­ton Boule­vard in the L.A. area.

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