Marin Independent Journal, January 17, 2017
By Dick Spotswood

Kudos to state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. The senator is one of the few North Bay officials making practical suggestions for improving California’s long-neglected highway system.

While the senator is a vocal supporter of balanced transportation options — including transit, carpooling, ferries, walking and bikes — unlike others, he is clear that “balanced” includes highways.

Perhaps that’s due to the physical reality of his sprawling 2nd Senate District that runs north from the Golden Gate to the Oregon state line. McGuire’s constituents, including those in Marin, are enduring decades of under-investment in California’s most vital arteries.

It’s not just the needed expansion of highway capacity that’s getting short-changed; maintenance of the existing network of roads and bridges is grossly underfunded. The respected nonpartisan Sacramento-based Cal Matters says, “… 68 percent of California roads are in poor or mediocre condition, the 44th-worst record in the nation. … The cost for all of the unfunded repairs identified by state and local officials in the coming decade is about $135 billion.”

The causes of declining highway investment are many. The state’s gas tax hasn’t increased since 1994 and environmentally conscious Californians are using less gas due to more efficient vehicles. Available funding is stretched thin due to conflicting legislative priorities and increasing sums needed to fund California public employee pensions.

McGuire is supporting SB 1, which proposes generating $6 billion annually for highway and transit projects with the money divided equally between state and local needs. Funding would come from a state gas tax hike and a $100-per-car fee on zero-emission vehicles so they pay their share of the cost of highways.

This is good as far as it goes, but in the end it’s just a stop-gap.

Giving half the proposed $6 billion to localities leaves $3 billion for state purposes. If the split with transit, now unspecified, is two-thirds to highways and bridges, one-third to transit, that leaves just $2 billion remaining for state highways. Forget expansion, $2 billion in a state of 40 million people is just a drop in the maintenance bucket.

In addition to SB 1, California needs a domestic Marshall Plan to maintain and, crucially, improve its highway network. While that must be accompanied by increased transit, the highway component needs to be central to any “do-it-right” package.

Before a super-majority of voters approves something as distasteful as a tax increase, state government will need to recapture lost public confidence in Caltrans. Its costly and unresponsive bureaucracy may be the greatest roadblock in passing any package.

The years long fiasco over the simple task of reopening the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge’s third auto lane is an example of why the public doesn’t trust Caltrans and allied alphabet agencies.

Most of us complain about spending hours in traffic, but few want to hear that well-maintained and expanded roads cost money. It’s all about the revenue and everything has to be on the table, including toll roads.

Here in Marin, topping the list of projects needs to be a new interchange linking Highway 101 and Interstate 580 to the Richmond bridge, finishing the Novato Narrows improvements and, in Southern Marin, rebuilding the East Blithedale Avenue-Tiburon Boulevard-Highway 101 interchange.

Any “do it right” plan must include rock-solid guarantees outlining exactly what would be accomplished and when it would be finished.

California will need to do this itself without much federal assistance. President-elect Donald Trump’s grand infrastructure promise was just another campaign stunt he’s already cut adrift.

Our state was once America’s leader in creating modern infrastructure and building world-class bridges. Time will tell if that era is past or if today’s Californians are up to the challenge.

Source: Marin Independent Journal