California has an estimated $57 billion worth of backlogged state highway repairs and replacements. How the state is going to pay for these critical infrastructure repairs has become the subject of much debate in Sacramento.

Some seek to increase fuel taxes and fees. U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, points out that highway work largely depends on gas taxes, but as gas prices fall and more fuel-efficient cars take over the roads in California, gas-tax revenues are drying up.

Others prefer to redirect existing revenue; transportation money the state diverted to other uses. “We can go a long way toward addressing California’s infrastructure problems if we use the money for what it was originally intended for — transportation projects,” said state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield.

DeSaulnier, who worked on transportation funding while in the Legislature, says redirecting existing money won’t work. It depends on an obsolete revenue model, he said, essentially taxing the gas-guzzling car. The state’s base 18-cent-per-gallon excise tax has not changed since 1994 and is a fading factor. Adjusted for mileage and inflation, the tax was worth 9 cents last year, according to Caltrans. It estimates that the $2.5 billion generated in the 2014-15 fiscal year will fall to $1.7 billion in 2015-16.

Yet as the gas-tax take dwindles, infrastructure costs continue to grow. Meanwhile, state engineers must set maintenance priorities — closing the most dangerous roads and bridges for immediate repairs but putting others on the waiting list. The recent collapse of an overpass guardrail onto rush-hour commuters on Interstate 880 in Oakland is a case in point. Although the state had previously declared the overcrossing outdated and dangerous, construction of its replacement, planned since 2009, is not expected to begin until next year.

Gov. Jerry Brown estimated last year that California’s deferred maintenance needs for its core highway infrastructure is $8 billion annually, compared with only $2 billion available each year. “Forty-one percent of our highways need some work,” Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said. “If nothing is done, it gets worse and more costly.”

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