It’s Time to Shift Road Funding to Counties

los-angeles-freeway-helicopter-1Last week, yet another high-profile scandal involving mismanagement rocked the California Department of Transportation – Caldrons, and yesterday I  introduced Senate Bill 1141, which would launch a pilot program shifting road funds and maintenance duties from Caltrans to county governments.

Caltrans is one of the worst managed, most inefficient government agencies in the nation.  Just look at the metrics. Californians pay among the highest gas taxes and the highest per-mile road maintenance, yet we also have the nation’s fifth worst roads.  Those are clear signs that Caltrans is dysfunctional and wasting taxpayer money.  If Caltrans was a private company, it would have been out of business long ago.

SB 1141 would launch a pilot program that allows two California counties to handle their own road maintenance needs, and to receive the road funding that typically would have been administered by Caltrans for those maintenance needs.

County governments are much more accountable to the taxpayers than the bureaucracy at Caltrans. County governments know their needs and have a history of getting the job done. Senate Bill 1141 allows counties to prove they can do much better than Caltrans.

Last week, the State Auditor found that Caltrans had intentionally lied to legislators about implementing the results of a 2009 efficiency study – one that recommended moving money and manpower to the highest need areas and managing efficiencies to help fix roads with the existing resources.  Caltrans management reassured legislators that they were implementing the study’s recommendations, when, in fact, they had ignored them altogether and continued with an inefficient, labor-union friendly resource allocation.

Auditors also found that Caltrans has little, and often no, cost control measures, and that Caltrans often fails to even track project costs.  The State Auditor is telling it straight when she says there are ‘weak cost controls’ that ‘create opportunities for fraud, waste and abuse.’ Sixty-two percent of Caltrans projects are over budget, and now we are beginning to know why.  We can no longer tolerate this nonsense. It’s time to provide constructive and necessary solutions.

SB 1141 would provide a real-world study on moving resources to counties and making our road dollars stretch much further.  More information on SB 1141 can be found HERE.

California State Senate, 37th District

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Controversial New Program Will Track Your Driving — For Tax Purposes

carpool-laneAs state drivers’ changing habits undermined roughly a hundred years of gasoline taxes, California officials debuted a controversial new pilot program designed to make up the difference.

“The state of California is looking for 5,000 volunteers this summer for an experiment with potentially major pocketbook ramifications,” the Sacramento Bee noted. The so-called California Road Charge pilot program, proposed by the state Legislature, has tasked “Caltrans and other transportation officials to set up a nine-month test to see what it would be like if drivers paid for state road repairs based on how many miles they drive in their cars or trucks rather than how many gallons they buy at the pump.”

Aiming for a July start and a nine-month run, the program “already has a list of 4,300 people who are game,” according to Next City. “Participants will continue to pay the pump tax, but receive simulated monthly statements detailing how much they would pay under a road usage system.”

Losing gas

With gas prices, gas taxes and gasoline usage all sinking, lawmakers have labored to settle on a different way to collect revenue from road usage. “In California, drivers now pay 30 cents per gallon, plus 18 cents a gallon in federal tax,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

“Not only are politicians averse to raising the tax — which hasn’t been bumped up since 1994, with polls showing extreme distaste from voters — but also the continuing rise in fuel efficiency and the boom in electric vehicles ensure the steady evaporation of revenues even as more cars roll up more miles on the road. Gas taxes are expected to bring in $4.5 billion this fiscal year, 16 percent less than last year and 21 percent less than in 2014. Projections call for revenues to drop another 6.5 percent in the coming year.”

Just last month, regulators signaled the shifts to come by throwing their weight behind a further drop in the gas tax. “California drivers will pay 2.2 cents less per gallon of gasoline, starting in July, after a divided Board of Equalization voted to cut the excise tax,” according to U-T San Diego.

“‘Lowering the rate is the right thing to do and I’m sure Californians will welcome this reduction,’ board vice chair George Runner said in a statement after the agency voted 3-2 to pass the reduction that was recommended by BOE staff.”

Making the transition

From a regulatory standpoint, moving toward a per-mile tax would offer an additional advantage — a relatively smooth and seamless transition from a logistical and bureaucratic standpoint. Of the four vendors recruited to track mileage in the new pilot program, three “are already providing bonus services to fleet managers based on vehicle data,” according to Techwire.net.

“Azuga currently offers fleets a device they plug straight into a vehicle’s OBDII computer — a standard component in all vehicles made after 1996. Aside from automatically reporting mileage back to fleet managers, the computer is what alerts drivers to specific problems in the engine and can also offer information about what’s going on under the hood,” the site noted. “Two of the other companies signed up to track the mileage of participants in California’s test program, Intelligent Mechatronic Systems and EROAD, offer similar services. The fourth vendor, Arvato Mobility Solutions, will manage the accounts.”

Although privacy advocates have expressed skittishness and dismay, many Californians have grown accustomed to their driving habits being monitored electronically. California Road Charge will offer “the option to allow the state to monitor their in-vehicle computer, tracking where they go so they aren’t charged for the use of private or out-of-state roads,” Next City noted. “Recognizing that many will see this as an intrusion on their privacy, the state is testing other ways to collect this data, like periodic odometer reading verifications. California will also experiment with offering drivers weekly or monthly ‘all-you-can-drive’ passes.”

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

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 [email protected] 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