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Voter wishes detoured on transportation spending

By: Senator Janet Nguyen
April 2, 2015 

For California to have a vibrant economy, one that creates jobs and financial security for all, we must maintain, rebuild and repair the vital infrastructure that keeps everything and everyone moving.

California used to be at the forefront of investing in transportation infrastructure. We had one of the most comprehensive highway systems in the country, and people and goods moved efficiently at reasonable costs.

Unfortunately, maintenance of our transportation infrastructure eventually took a back seat as funding was diverted to other programs. By 2002, voters were fed up with the deteriorating infrastructure and funding diversions. They overwhelmingly passing Proposition 42. The intent of Prop. 42 was to ensure that the taxes or fees paid by drivers would be used solely to maintain and expand California's transportation infrastructure.

Since then a number of changes have undermined Prop. 42. Transportation project tax dollars continue to be diverted or loaned to the General Fund. Our highways, roads, bridges and tunnels are crumbling, and the money we've paid specifically to maintain them continues to be spent on other things.

Estimates of the depth of crumble vary, but 2013 assessments by the American Society of Civil Engineers and TRIP reveal that:

* 34 percent of California's 31,827 miles of major roads are in poor condition, resulting in increased costs to motorists of about $17 billion annually.

* 64 percent of major roads in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area are in poor condition, costing area drivers $832 annually in additional vehicle operating costs.

* Just over 11 percent of the state's bridges (2,769 of 24,955) are considered structurally deficient.

Proper maintenance of the state's infrastructure is critical - not just for public safety but for the state's overall economic health. To restore our infrastructure and keep the will of the voters intact, we need to make legislative adjustments.

First, we need to put a stop to the diversion of weight fees to the General Fund. As part of the "gas tax swap" in 2010, weight fees paid by trucks that were meant to go toward road maintenance were diverted to make payments on transportation bonds. This was supposed to help during the budget crisis but now that our budget woes are seemingly in our rear view mirror, we must stop diverting weight fees and return approximately $1 billion annually to our transportation infrastructure maintenance coffers.

Second, we need to end the diversion of gas-tax revenue. The gas tax swap also required the state controller to deposit gas tax money into accounts used for transportation purposes. However, in a classic sleight-of-hand, the constitution was amended to include paying off transportation bond debt as an appropriate transportation purpose. This maneuver freed about $100 million in General Fund money to be spent on non-transportation programs. Gas tax funding should be directed back to the State Transportation Improvement Program, Local Streets and Roads, and the State Highway Operation and Protection Program.

Third, we need to repay the remaining $1 billion in outstanding loans made from various transportation funds now, not 12 years from now. Since 2001, a total of $3 billion has been loaned, of which only $2 billion has been repaid to date, and payoff of the remaining $1 billion is to be done in small increments through 2026. With the economy trending upwards and the need urgent, debt repayment must be a priority.

These three actions would not only honor the will of the voters, but would also jump start efforts to bring our transportation infrastructure back up to par by putting in over $1 billion upfront and $1.1 billion annually into transportation projects. Further, it will create jobs around the state.

Taking these three actions is simple, honest, and signals a return to transparency in the legislative process. Current and future transportation dollars must be spent on transportation projects.