Progress in California Road Repairs Lagging Despite Gas Tax Hike

Four years ago, Will Kempton, then executive director of Transportation California and a former Caltrans director, said the state’s roads were “the worst I have seen.”

A few months later, the state began collecting revenue from a $52 billion, 10-year fuel tax hike to raise enough revenue to bring up to date one of the most broken street-and-highway systems in the country.

The reality, however, hasn’t matched up with the promises.

Progress in making repairs, the Los Angeles Times reports, is “lagging.” Worse, “officials now say the funding is sufficient only to complete less than half of the work needed.”

Not even Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “$2 billion shot of new money” from his surplus-filled May budget revision for bridge and road repair will be sufficient to catch up to the needs. Nor will the next installment of Senate Bill 1’s tax increases, a 5.1 cents-a-gallon levy arriving on July 1.

How can this be?

According to the Times, Sacramento has allocated about $16 billion from 2017’s Senate Bill 1 for roads and highways. Yet “state officials say that much more money is needed to address shortcomings in the transportation system. Caltrans estimates it will need $122.9 billion over 10 years ‘to maintain the existing assets’ due in part to increasing costs and the age of the infrastructure.”

It would be helpful if policymakers didn’t have a habit of diverting revenues for road work to unrelated projects. But transportation funds are as politicized as any of the dollars funneled through Sacramento. For instance, it took the state only a matter of months after SB1 was passed and signed to move motor fuel tax revenues to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state Department of Parks and Recreation, the General Fund, and local law enforcement.

Revenues also end up in political pits that have no bottom. The state “devotes a greater share of its transportation funds to public transit than most other states,” says George Mazur, a Davis-based principal of the transportation planning firm Cambridge Systematics.

Newsom has also used the money from higher fuel taxes as political leverage. Two years ago, his office announced that revenues generated by SB1 “may be withheld from any jurisdiction that does not have a compliant housing element and has not zoned and entitled for its updated annual housing goals.”

In 2019, the Caltrans inspector general determined that the department had misspent millions, and it disallowed more than $13 million in state and local expenditures. None of the dollars was from SB1 revenues.

A more recent Caltrans audit showed just how irresponsible the department is with other people’s money. Though not a bank, it had been in the habit of handing out salary advances, and then failing to collect on them, wasting “as much as $1.5 million.” The inspector general said the “forfeiture balance might have risen from $1.5 million to nearly $3 million if our investigation had not prompted it to take action.”

Proposition 69 was supposed to have ended the practice of siphoning off dollars by putting transportation funds in a “lock box” where they couldn’t be raided by politicians. But since its passage in 2018 — with an 81-19 support margin — Newsom ordered SB1 revenues to be redirected from repair projects “to help reverse the trend of increased fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation sector.”

Further holding back progress are the steep costs involved road construction and repair. According to the Reason Foundation’s most recent Annual Highway report, California spends $186,549 per lane-mile on its roads, nearly twice the U.S. average of $94,870.

Much of the added costs are attributable to generous state labor laws. Only in Washington are highway maintenance workers paid more than in California, where the average yearly wage is almost $55,000.

The state’s steep cost of living — the consequence of poor public policy — as well as a strict regulatory regime, punctuated by the California Environmental Quality Act, also increase project expenses.

Californians desperately need both new and expanded highways, and existing roads repaired. The lousy system costs “Californians $61 billion annually due to congestion-related delays, traffic collisions, and increased vehicle operating costs caused by poor road conditions,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

But Sacramento has for too long had other priorities. The Blue State agenda both crowds out basic needs and robs drivers of the infrastructure maintenance they’ve paid for.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.


  1. Chris Renner says

    You can flap your gums about solutions but politicians will continue to tax you and never solve any problems.
    California is broken and WILL NEVER be fixed until it collapses. Get out as soon as you can!

  2. The posted price at the pump continues to be “dumping ground” for numerous federal, state and local taxes, as well as costs associated with the state’s environmental rules and regulations, all of which provide a slush fund for many pet projects like the High-Speed Rail. Governor Newsom’s own party killed transparency of that pricing at the pump.

  3. Disgusted in California says

    Somehow – that money is finding it’s way into a pet project of Nuisance and his cronies – or their pockets!!!!

    • Stan Sexton says

      I think it went to the bloated CALPERS and CALSTRS pension funds. Thousands if 100k+ pensions plus Curtis Ishii gets over $416,800 a year.

  4. STEPHANIE says

    Come to north San Diego county and you can see and feel the horrible roads. It’s also dangerous. They just don’t care. You can scream at caltrans all you want. They ignore you.

  5. Laurie C says

    Any street repair in North County is directed to bicycles and skateboards who rule the roads, streets are marked up.for them, they ride going wrong way facing you, c
    Calif punishes drivers with high taxes, insurance, however none these free loaders tearing up the roads pay, they slow traffic, red lites mean nothing to them, they know they have the power over cars.

  6. For the communist democrat, resolving and fixing problems is the last thing they want. For them problems are profitable.

  7. “…transportation funds to public transit than most other states,…..”

    Cars Are Basic, Inc. has made this statement of fact for more then a decade. As the roads deteriorated the response by elected officials under Brown and now Newsom is no response.

    Quietly if you can get them to comment it is clear the INTENT OF THIS POLICY IS POPULATION CONTROL.

    The Left has made it clear they do not want a mobile population that has clearly stated it wants little to do with “Stack’m & Pack’m living. When able if the single family homes are not available in Calif. they move. Representatives like Wiener have destroyed zoning laws. Obama stated zoning based upon low density and in conformance with resources is “exclusionary housing.”

    Where are the massive illegal migration going to live? There is only so much land on the Calif coast. Without adequate off street parking and streets capable of moving more and more autos their plans collapse.

    This is why Soviet Style RHNA rules were passed. Sacramento has clearly stated do as we say as the top end elected live in nice suburban housing.

    The party of control in the State for the past 2 decades have created “work around” processes to use Federal Transportation funds at the local level when dictated for highways and bridges. Transfer many grants to STIP accounts, dilute the funds and then hand them out for street narrowing, taking of capacity.

    It is clear, Sacramento is not interested in rational and working highway policies. They ignore the failures of bus systems through out the state. They ignore the failed k-12 school bike programs.

    There is so much more.

    Support CAB –

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