California transportation plan remains elusive

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 9/4/2015

Tensions are high among state and elected officials in California as the deadline nears for lawmakers to reach agreement on a transportation plan.

The California Legislature is meeting in special session in their pursuit of plans to address some of the $59 billion in state transportation needs over the next decade. However, they don’t appear to be close to a deal with the session scheduled to wrap up by Sept. 11.

California Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly is putting the heat on Republicans to get on board with Democratic plans to raise about $4.3 billion annually for infrastructure largely through higher fuel taxes.

Although Democrats are the majority party in the state, they do not hold the “supermajority” necessary to pass a tax increase. As a result, some Republican votes are necessary to approve a bill to increase the state’s excise tax on gas and diesel by 12 cents and raise certain vehicle fees.

Instead of increased taxes and fees, the GOP is first calling for fixes at Caltrans and tapping existing sources of revenue for roads and bridges.

In an open letter Kelly said Assembly Republicans choose “to kick the can down a potholed road.”

Kelly wrote that “transportation needs a permanent and stable funding plan – not more budget gimmicks and borrowing – to avoid the volatility of the past two decades.”

One Republican plan would reroute to roads at least $2 billion in certain truck fees. Since 2010, state lawmakers have diverted the vehicle weight fees paid by commercial vehicles from the state’s highway account to the general fund.

Kelly said the switch back would require the general fund to pay debt service on bonds that funded transportation work throughout the state. He also noted that Republicans supported the maneuver when it was approved at the statehouse.

Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen of Riverbank and Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, responded in a letter to Kelly.

“We’re encouraged to see a Caltrans official take a break from the golf course to focus on California’s crumbling transportation infrastructure.”

The GOP lawmakers were referring to a state auditor’s finding of a Caltrans audit. The audit released at the end of August shows that Caltrans approved the time sheets of an engineer who played golf for 55 workdays over a 19-month period that ended in spring 2014.

Republicans also want to tap the state’s Cap and Trade program. The program collects $1.9 billion annually through higher fuel prices to benefit Gov. Jerry Brown’s high speed rail project.

“As California motorists are paying it at the pump, we believe that there is a clear nexus to transportation and that the money should be spent accordingly,” the GOP letter states.

Kelly wrote that although Republicans opposed the program, now they want to use it for road repairs. However, he points out “the law requires that investments result in quantifiable greenhouse gas emission reductions.”

Olsen and Achadjian wrote that “if the administration does not believe that the law allows these Cap and Trade revenues to be used for transportation infrastructure, the solution is simple: change the law. … This would be a more popular and appropriate use of these funds than high speed rail.”

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

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