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Contra Costa needs more road capacity, but we don’t need new sales taxes to build it

Along with the grandeur of Yosemite and the beauty of the California coast, there’s our state’s epic rush hours. But sales taxes on the Nov. 8 ballot, like Contra Costa’s Measure X, aren’t the way to solve them.

Measure X would add 0.5% to local sales tax rates to fund a variety of transportation projects around the county. But it would raise something other than revenue — like concerns about equity and efficiency.

Measure X would hike the overall tax rate in El Cerrito to 10.50% and in Richmond to 10.00%. Working class people in these neighborhoods – many of whom do not have cars – will be expected to pay more for clothing and school supplies to subsidize the commutes of affluent Tesla drivers living in Blackhawk and other wealthy communities.

Because Tesla’s and other Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) don’t use gas, their owners don’t pay the gasoline taxes that traditionally fund road construction and maintenance. The increased popularity of BEVs has contributed to the sharp decline in gas tax revenues collected by the state and distributed to counties. This reduction in gas tax funding is one reason county officials are asking voters to double the transportation sales tax from its current 0.5% level.

But by funding transportation improvements from general tax revenue, we are subsidizing drivers who most often travel the highways in single-occupancy vehicles. A better option is to fund highway improvements through toll revenues. Although we are starting to see toll lanes in Contra Costa County, much more can be done.

In Orange County, public agencies operate four toll roads as well as four express lanes in the median of SR-91. Agencies maintain these arteries with toll revenues; no taxpayer funding is required. The SR-91 express lanes, opened 20 years ago, have been a model for express lane projects elsewhere around the nation. The nearest example to us is a stretch of I-680 in Alameda County that includes a High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane – one that can be used by carpools for free and by solo drivers for a fee that varies with the level of congestion. In California, express lane tolls are paid with FasTrak, just like bridge tolls.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is converting a carpool lane on I-680 between Walnut Creek and San Ramon to an HOT lane. But beyond conversions, drivers also need new lanes on portions of I-80, I-680, SR-24 and SR-4. Under Assembly Bill 194, these new lanes can be financed by bonds backed by toll revenues – reducing or eliminating the need for tax subsidies.

Budgeted costs and the risks of cost overruns (like the one experienced by the Bay Bridge replacement project) can be limited by contracting with private firms to design and build new express lanes. This is the approach the Orange County Transportation Authority is taking for new toll lanes it is adding to I-405, a project now out for bid.

Other states are leveraging the private sector even more. In the Miami suburbs, the Florida Department of Transportation has recently added three tolled, reversible express lanes to I-595. The successful project was not only designed and built privately, but the concessionaire is also operating and maintaining the new lanes.

In the Washington, D.C. suburbs, an Australian company owns and operates express lanes in the Capital Beltway, I-495. The same company also owns 13 tollways in Australia.

By correctly pricing our highways, we can attract private capital and the toll revenues needed to maintain and expand them. By asking drivers to fund the highways they use, we can relieve the burden on the county’s often disadvantaged sales taxpayers.