California Senate panel advances transportation plans

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 8/26/2015

California state lawmakers have the ball rolling in their pursuit of plans to address some of the $59 billion in state transportation needs over the next decade.

Back from summer recess, the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Development Committee met recently to consider multiple funding options. The meeting was part of a special session on transportation.

The panel voted along party lines to approve a plan to raise about $4.3 billion annually for infrastructure largely through higher fuel taxes.

Sponsored by Sen. Jim Beal, the committee chairman, the bill would increase the state’s excise tax on gas and diesel by 12 cents.

Beal, D-San Jose, has said the state “must act now” to provide more resources for state and local roads.

“The state transportation system is critical to California’s economic wellbeing,” Beal testified. “It enables us to move goods and people around and through our state. All of us who drive share the responsibility to maintain our roads.”

Senate Republicans say instead of raising taxes to fund road and bridge repairs they would prefer to see reform measures adopted to pay for upgrades.

Other revenue enhancers included in the bill, SBX1 1, would gradually increase vehicle license fees by 1 percent, raise vehicle registration fees by $35 and subject zero-emission vehicles to an annual $100 fee.

In addition, the bill includes a requirement that all revenue would be used solely for road and bridge work, and $300 million annually would be used for improving freight mobility at ports.

The state would split all new revenue each year with cities and counties.

Speaking at the Port of Oakland recently, Gov. Jerry Brown did not offer up any details for where new revenue will come but the Democratic governor said it must come from somewhere to help fix the state’s ailing transportation infrastructure.

“It’s fundamental that California be able to move goods and people in a modern, efficient way,” Brown said. “This is critical to California prosperity.”

Any tax increase requires approval of two-thirds of the Legislature. The Democratic majority in both statehouse chambers falls short of the threshold necessary for passage of a transportation bill out of the special session that must wrap up by Sept. 11.

Another bill approved with unanimous consent by the committee is intended to reform the California Department of Transportation.

SBX1 12 would establish the California Transportation Commission as an independent oversight agency to approve individual repair and maintenance projects.

The commission now is part of the agency, which Sen. Sharon Runner, R-Antelope Valley, says limits the ability to effectively review and oversee projects.

“Before increasing taxes and fees to generate new revenues for our transportation infrastructure, existing funds should be spent efficiently,” Runner said.

One more bill to advance from the committee would create a Transportation Inspector General to investigate Caltrans and the High-Speed Rail Authority. The IG would be responsible to report back to the Legislature any instances of fraud, waste and abuse.

SBX1 13 would give the Legislature the tools it needs to hold Caltrans and the High-Speed Rail Authority accountable, and ensure that every transportation dollar is spent efficiently and appropriately,” said Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford.

The bills await further consideration in the Senate Appropriations Committee before moving to the Senate floor.

To view other legislative activities of interest for California, click here.

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