The Pacific Coast Highway stretch between Dana Point in Orange County, Calif., at the southern end, and Fort Bragg in Mendocino on the northern end, “is a bucket-list trip,” the New York Daily News enthused two years ago. “Stretching 650 curve-hugging, jaw-dropping miles along the ruggedly beautiful central coast of California, Highway 1 is one of the most scenic roads in the country.”
What the newspaper didn’t mention is that anyone winding along California roads might think that the Big One has already hit. Streets and highways across the state are in awful shape: a cracked, crumbling mess pock-marked with potholes, which tend to grow larger due to time, weather, and government negligence.
Some potholes grew so monstrous after recent heavy winter rains that California Highway Patrol officers in Oakland actually named one — “Steve.” They should have called it “Jerry,” after Governor Brown, who has done little about the state’s failing infrastructure except talk about it, while continuing to seek funding for a costly and unnecessary high-speed rail system. A bit of help for the weary motorist who’s thinking about making a justifiable claim against Caltrans for the damage it’s done to his car? Not in Brown’s California. Chapman University professor and City Journal contributing editor Joel Kotkin wrote last year in the Orange County Register that Brown’s goal “is to make congestion so terrible that people will be forced out of their cars and onto transit.”
Not all of California’s infrastructure problems can be blamed on the winter weather. In 2015, in the midst of a withering drought, the Mercury News reported that a family’s car hit a “killer pothole” near Sacramento with such force that its airbags inflated. Repairs would have cost nearly $15,000, so the insurance company wrote if off as a total loss. Though that might sound like a one-off event, California roads are indeed wrecking cars. “Deficient roads” in the Los Angeles area cost motorists an average $2,800 in annual repair costs. The state implicitly admits that its roads are a mess through a law that enables car owners who feel they’ve “lost money or property as a result of any action or inaction by Caltrans” to make five-figure claims against the agency.
The Reason Foundation, which for decades has rated road conditions across the country, ranked California roads 42nd in the nation in its 22nd Annual Highway Report. The state is 45th in rural-interstate pavement condition, 48th in urban-interstate pavement condition, and 48th in congestion in urbanized areas, the study says. “Half of the nation’s rural interstate mileage in poor condition is located in just five states,” says Reason’s Adrian Moore, and California is one of them. Media reports say that nearly 60 percent of the roads need repair. Will Kempton, a former Caltrans director, told the Los Angeles Times in February that road conditions were the worst he’d ever seen.
Roads aren’t the only infrastructure breaking down in California; its dams are no longer trustworthy. The Oroville Dam in the Sierra Nevada foothills almost failed this winter when its main spillway fell apart. It didn’t, but its near-collapse was a warning, as the New York Times reported, that the state’s “network of dams and waterways is suffering from age and stress.” The San Francisco Chronicle said a year ago that “there are 200 dams in California that are at least partially filled with mud and are approaching the end of their working lives.”
This isn’t a surprise to policymakers, who’ve been on notice for some time. According to the Association of Dam Safety Officials, California had 334 “high-hazard potential” dams in 2005; by 2015, 678 earned that designation. Officials were told in 2005 that the emergency spillway at the Oroville Dam posed a serious risk.
Also vulnerable are the state’s levees, especially those in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta network. Problems in this patchwork of largely muddy banks, built by farmers rather than civil engineers, put much of the state’s water supply at grave risk.
Rather than fix the state’s vital artery system and shore up its dams and levees, Brown and other policymakers prefer to focus on the shiny bauble of high-speed rail and a fanciful mixture of mass transit and bike lanes in an effort to move Californians out of their cars and into forms of transportation favored by Sacramento’s political bosses. Those who resist the agenda because they want to maintain the freedom facilitated by cars are likely to be hit with a new fuel-tax hike (in a state that already has some of the highest fuel taxes in the country).
More taxes, tolls, or user fees might be tolerable if the additional dollars improved the roads. But California has a history of taxing motorists to pay for pet projects that have zero connection with improved street and highway conditions. The Golden State’s existing patterns of density and sprawl have made reliance on car travel a necessity for most residents. Mass-transit advocates can wish for magical people-moving networks that will make cars obsolete, but the state’s planners need to focus on repairing the infrastructure we already have before they start implementing their dreams of a shining California future.