A Tale of Two Bridges — The Failure of Caltrans

Bay BridgeThe Bay Bridge debacle is the most serious sign that Caltrans is a broken agency.  There needs to be an immediate top-to-bottom review of its management and structure, followed by house cleaning and reorganization.  It’s a tragedy that Californians pay the highest transportation taxes and have the worst roads to show for it.

This Week’s Bay Bridge News:

Fears of failure grow for rods on Bay Bridge eastern span

“Potentially widespread problems that experts warn could lead to premature failure…The rods are more vulnerable than Caltrans’ test results suggest.”

“It’s a very shoddy job all the way around…Clearly there was no quality assurance on anything…”

Golden Gate Bridge

Build Time:     4.5 years, completed 8 months ahead of schedule

Cost:                  $35 million, 4% under budget

Lifespan:          78 years old and counting

Declared:         “Wonder of the Modern World”

SF/Oakland Bay Bridge-Eastern Span

Build Time:     11 years, completed 6 years behind schedule

Cost:                   $6.4 billion, at least 300% over budget

Lifespan:         2 yrs old, but design flaws could produce premature failure

Declared:        “Most expensive public works project in California history”

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

California State Senate, 37th District

On Bullet Train, Voters Finally May Get to Apply the Brakes

high speed rail trainPencils have erasers. Computers have the undo command and the escape key.

If you had it to do over again, would you vote for the bullet train?

It was called the “Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act” on the 2008 ballot, and it authorized $9 billion in bonds — borrowed money — to “partially fund” a high-speed train system in California.

The ballot measure required that there would be “private and public matching funds,” “accountability and oversight” and a focus on completing “Phase I” from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Anaheim. Bond funds could not be spent on the other corridors, like Fresno to Bakersfield, unless there was “no negative impact on the construction of Phase I.”

Today the estimated cost is over $68 billion, private and federal funds are not in sight, and accountability has been cut back — instead of two spending reports to the Legislature every year, only one report every two years will be required. And “Phase I” broke ground in Fresno.

Place your finger on the escape key and stand by. State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Fresno, has introduced a bill, co-authored by Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, to put the bullet train before the voters again. If Senate Bill 3 (SBX1-3) can muster a two-thirds vote in the state Senate and Assembly, it will be on the June 2016 ballot.

The measure would freeze spending on the bullet train and direct unspent funds to the Department of Transportation to be used for roads, which would come in handy because California needs $59 billion just to maintain the freeways for the next 10 years. Gov. Jerry Brown has called a special session of the Legislature to look for revenue to fill the state’s transportation budget pothole after signing a “balanced” budget that left that item out.

The non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office offered some suggestions that illustrate the difference between what tax increases can raise and what the bullet train costs.

• Raising the tax on a gallon of gasoline brings in $150 million per 1 cent increase.

• Raising the tax on a gallon of diesel fuel collects $30 million per 1 cent increase.

• Raising the vehicle registration fee nets $33 million per $1 increase.

• Doubling the vehicle weight fees raises about $1 billion.

• Raising the vehicle license fee hauls in roughly $3 billion per 1 percent increase.

There are other options. The LAO says lawmakers could prioritize the budget to use money from the general fund to maintain and construct roads. Billions in cap-and-trade revenue, collected from fees now levied on gasoline and diesel fuel, could be used for highway projects that reduce traffic and improve mileage.

Additionally, $900 million that was loaned from state transportation accounts to the general fund could be repaid and used for roads. “Efficiency and effectiveness” could be improved by prioritizing cost-effective maintenance projects, increasing accountability and oversight, and examining Caltrans’ “capital outlay support” program to see if it is “operating efficiently.” Hint, hint.

The scrimping, saving and tax hikes needed to maintain the freeways can’t begin to address all the other transportation infrastructure needs, and we still have to pay for the rising costs of Medi-Cal, unfunded pensions and health benefits for state employees, and desperately needed water projects.

In 2008, the ballot argument for the bullet train promised high-speed rail “without raising taxes,” but it’s a shell game if tax revenue is spent on the train while taxes are raised for the roads.

Sen. Vidak’s bipartisan bill ought to have the support of every lawmaker. Voters deserve a chance to undo the bullet train and escape from this mess.

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Reach the author at Susan@SusanShelley.com or follow Susan on Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.

​Why Higher Taxes for Potholes is a Bad Idea

road_blockTo paraphrase Ronald Reagan, here we go again. Once more, taxpayers are being told by our political elites that, if we want good roads, we have to have higher taxes.

Just a few weeks ago, this column exposed the politicians’ plan to hike gas taxes along with vehicle license fees and registration. This plan, by San Jose lawmaker Jim Beall, would slam taxpayers in three ways. First, it would raise at least $3 billion annually by increasing the gas tax by another 10 cents a gallon. Second, it would hike the vehicle license fee, which is based on value, by more than 50 percent over 5 years. Third, it would increase the cost to register a vehicle by over 80 percent.

The latest scheme is Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4 which would weaken Proposition 13 by eliminating the two-thirds vote for local transportation sales taxes. ACA 4 is a bad idea. California already has the highest state sales tax in the nation. Not only that, but sales taxes are highly regressive, hitting the poor and working middle class the hardest.

It is true that California ranks very low nationally in the condition of its roads and highways. But, in addition to an already high sales tax we also have the highest income tax rate in America and the 4th highest gas tax. (And, by the way, that gas tax doesn’t even include the cost of California’s one of a kind “cap and trade” regulations which substantially increases the cost of every gallon of fuel pumped in California).

The truth is that the sad condition of our highways has nothing to do with the lack of tax dollars and has everything to do with poor management and bad choices in deciding where our transportation dollars are spent. Our taxes are far more likely to be paying for projects we don’t even need — like High Speed Rail — or a bloated Caltrans budget than they are for fixing roads.

There’s another compelling reason why, should it ever make it to the ballot, ACA 4 deserves to be resoundingly defeated.  At least 20 counties in California, including all the large ones, have already passed higher sales taxes with the two-thirds supermajority vote mandated by Prop 13. Billions of dollars have been raised by these so-called “Self-Help Counties” all for transportation purposes. In going to the voters, local officials have to make sure that they propose projects that are truly needed. Lowering the vote threshold will only incentivize waste and the funding of pet projects, not the high priority needs of California motorists.

We believe very strongly that taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay the price for bad decisions made by politicians and bureaucrats. Until our elected leaders direct the vast amount of money already available for highway improvements to those needed projects, we certainly shouldn’t consider even higher taxes and weakening Prop. 13. That’s why HJTA will oppose ACA 4 and we urge all California taxpayers to do the same.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

Originally published by the HJTA.org

CARTOON: CA Bay Bridge Safety

CalTrans cartoon

Wolverton, Cagle Cartoons