In his State of the State address earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown pointed to California’s deferred infrastructure maintenance as “staggering” and put the price tag for repairs at $77 billion. One would be hard-pressed to find any policymaker from either party who doesn’t see the state’s crumbling and inadequate infrastructure as a crisis, although there’s the usual difference of opinion on how best to pay for the needed upgrades.
But rest assured, the California State Transportation Agency, which oversees the state’s eight transportation-related bureaucracies, released in late June the “California Transportation Plan 2040.” It’s a blueprint for the state’s infrastructure future. The only problem: it’s more about building bicycle lanes and rail connections, and dramatically changing land-use patterns to combat climate change, than it is about improving the system of roads, freeways, and bridges that most of us actually rely on to get places.
Consider it a social-engineering, rather than transportation-engineering, document. The introductory letter barely even mentions highway and bridge construction. “With approved Sustainable Communities Strategies, our regional partners are already leading the way toward transportation and land use patterns that will provide cost-effective transportation solutions and also improve livability in our communities,” wrote state Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly.
“By 2040, California will have completed an integrated rail system linking every major region in the state, with seamless one-ticket transfers to local transit,” Kelly added. “Responding to the desires of millennials and aging baby boomers alike, we will further invest in complete, safe pedestrian and bicycle networks.” Don’t worry, he doesn’t totally ignore roads. Kelly promises a “‘fix-it first’ approach that will improve operations and lower maintenance costs for our highways, roads and bridges. We will continue to support the deployment of zero-emission vehicles and other technology innovations.”
There’s an obvious disconnect here. Brown and legislators constantly use the state’s pothole-laden road system as an excuse to increase taxes — there’s not enough money! — and fees on California drivers. But the state plan doesn’t emphasize roads.
A Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Development Committee backgrounder from last July noted that “68 percent of California’s roads are in ‘poor’ or ‘mediocre’ condition, putting California behind 43 other states in road condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.” The committee argued the reason is “state and local governments have been unable to properly fund the maintenance and rehabilitation of California’s road system for decades.”
The committee offered various possible options: Increase the fuel excise tax by indexing it to inflation. Swap the excise tax with a sales tax. Institute a mileage-based user charge. Increase the vehicle-registration fee. Increase vehicle-weight fees. Make it easier, by reducing the local supermajority vote threshold, for locals to raise transportation taxes. Increase the number of toll roads. Spend more general-fund and other revenues.
The last in the long list of options is “apply savings from increased efficiencies,” which the committee suggested may be difficult to accomplish. That’s the only possibility offered that doesn’t require either more taxes or more spending. Granted, trying to squeeze efficiencies out of the California Department of Transportation, in particular, is as futile as getting the old Soviet Union’s GUM Department Store to operate like Macy’s.
The state offers amazingly generous salaries and pensions to its elite class of “workers.” More accurately, they should be called “employees,” given that a state audit found that there are 3,500 people on the Caltrans payroll who should be laid off. And their unions are so powerful that they easily derail outsourcing and other efficiency-boosting projects. The only thing left is to demand more cash, but it’s hard to argue that California doesn’t already impose sufficiently high taxes on its residents. “The gas tax that supports road repairs ranks among the highest in the country but the state has some of the worst roads in America,” according to a CALmatters report last year.
“Texas spends about one-fourth as much as California per mile of highway, but Texas’ highways are the 11th best in America, while California’s state highways rank 45th,” wrote Adrian Moore of the Reason Foundation. “For every mile of highway it has, Texas spends $3,800 on administrative costs. California spends over $47,000 on administrative costs for every mile of highway it has.… Given limited resources, it is vital to steer money to the projects that are the most important and will provide the greatest public benefit. Instead, California just broke ground on a bullet train optimistically estimated to cost $68 billion.”
In addition to excess costs, the state has poor priorities. Indeed, the bullet train is a ridiculous, ideologically driven and deceptive project. It’s ridiculous because California already has a high-speed system. Southwest Airlines will easily take me from Sacramento to Los Angeles in a little over an hour. It’s more about fighting an ideological battle over climate change than beefing up transportation. It’s deceptive because most of the major promises made in the statewide initiative providing initial funding for the train — no operating subsidies, 150-minute travel time from L.A. to San Francisco, lots of private investment — seem unlikely at best.
But the travails of not-so-high-speed rail have been the subject of news reports and court cases for several years now. It’s the state’s most obvious single misplaced transportation priority. As Bloomberg’s Virginia Postrel explained, it “increasingly looks like an expensive social science experiment to test just how long interest groups can keep money flowing to a doomed endeavor before elected officials finally decide to cancel it.”
The rail project almost certainly will grind to a halt eventually. But the California 2040 plan is more revealing and wasteful. Sure, state officials will continue to find revenue to do the bare minimum to maintain our roads and freeways. Their state’s overarching transportation vision, however, has little to do with the nuts-and-bolts of infrastructure.
Most Californians would no doubt pay even higher taxes to fund the current transportation bureaucracy if officials actually tried to combat congestion. We might even pay more knowing some of it will be wasted on a bullet train. But will Californians pony up more tax dollars for a plan that prioritizes bike lanes over freeways? It’s the latest evidence that, barring some dramatic changes in leadership, California is looking at a greatly diminished future.
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