Gas-tax repeal gets closer to vote as train spotlights state’s misplaced priorities

By Steven Greenhut
March 25, 2018

Sacramento

Almost everyone agrees that California’s infrastructure is shockingly decrepit, yet public anger over a 12-cent-a-gallon gas tax to address that problem has not subsided. Although an effort by GOP gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen to repeal the tax never got traction, a separate effort led by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio and GOP gubernatorial candidate John Cox is close to qualifying for the November ballot.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who led the push for last year’s transportation tax hikes, has vowed a spirited and well-funded campaign against the rollback – and has expressed concern that repealing the tax would endanger $5 billion annually in much-needed road and freeway improvements. Various polls suggest it’s a close call whether voters will heed his warning.

The repeal effort already has collected the 585,000 signatures required to place it on the November ballot. DeMaio and other repeal backers are trying to gather another 250,000 signatures to provide a cushion against duplicates, improper signatures and any disputes with country registrars, who are tasked with qualifying signatures to place the measure on the ballot.

“Polling shows that as soon as voters know what it is, it’s 65 percent to 30 percent in favor of repeal,” DeMaio told me. “They’ll outspend us by as much as 10 to one, but there aren’t many undecided voters. People are angry and it’s going to be hard to change minds on this.”

Are the repeal’s supporters being shortsighted, given the pressing infrastructure needs? Not at all. No doubt, the governor and his union allies will be suggesting as much when they try to derail the repeal vote. DeMaio jokes that their “no” commercials “will say that the repeal kills kittens.” Democrats also are trying to forestall a June recall election of Sen. Josh Newman, D-Orange County. Republicans are targeting the freshman senator because of his deciding vote on the gas-tax hike. The recall has become a statewide battleground and is shaping up to be a tight race, especially during an expected Democratic surge year.

Another recent news story helps explain why many Californians – including plenty of Democratic and “No Party Preference” voters – may be eager to repeal the new taxes, even though they realize the extent of the state’s infrastructure needs. That story involves the governor’s plan to build a high-speed-rail line that connects San Francisco to Los Angeles. The controversial project has become even more controversial as the latest price tag for it has soared.

The California High Speed Rail Authority last week released its latest plan, which increases the projected cost from $63 billion to $77 billion and delays the expected opening by four years to 2033. That’s an astounding setback given that the system is facing soaring costs and delays even as the authority builds the easiest part of the route – through the flat Central Valley. Just wait until engineers try to build over or through the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains.

Speaking to a group of union officials last week, Brown unleashed a tirade. He called talk of overruns and delays “bullshit,” and said he is “so tired of all the nonsense that I read in the paper and you hear from other politicians.” Brown said the state can build the rail project if “we don’t let these small-minded people intimidate us into lowering our expectations.” But Californians’ low expectations are primarily the result of the state’s unrealistic projections, and constantly shifting rail alignments and cost estimates. The public’s skepticism has nothing to do with small mindedness. The latest disappointments come not from skeptics, but from the governor’s own high-speed rail authority, which says the final number could top $100 billion.

How does this relate to higher gas taxes? No funds from the estimated $5 billion a year raised by the new taxes are earmarked for the bullet train, although around $750 million go toward transit in general. But the main issue involves priorities. State officials can’t cry poormouth about road, bridge and freeway funding when they are busy squandering $77 billion or more on an unnecessary rail project.

In 2008, voters approved Proposition 1A, which provided $9.95 billion in initial bond funding for a project that was sold as a sleek and fast system modeled after those gee-whiz bullet trains in Europe and Japan. To win public support, the initiative included some supposed guarantees. The train would travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes. Construction on the initial 300-mile segment would not proceed until all the funding for that segment was identified. There would be no operating subsidies. The ticket costs would be low.

All those promises went by the wayside. A superior court judge initially halted the first bond sale because those funding sources weren’t identified, but higher courts allowed it proceed despite that failure. Now the Prop. 1A promises are mere suggestions.

The rail authority revised its plan by creating a cost-saving “blended route” in which the bullet train will share tracks with commuter trains in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles basin, thus turning the promised travel times into a fantasy. A train can’t zoom along at high speeds if it’s running beside commuter trains. Private funding never materialized. Operating subsidies now seem like a given. Can you blame Californians for being skeptical?

During his recent talk, Brown offered this new funding plan: “I’ll tell you how we’re going to fund the railroad. We’re going to take back the Congress and then a Democratic Congress is going to put the high-speed rail in the infrastructure bill and then we’ll get that trillion dollars and we’ll put America back to work.” Instead of identifying real funding sources, Brown and his fellow rail supporters have embraced a political pipedream based on the iffy promise of a widespread change in the national political scene. Good luck taking that one to the bank.

No wonder former Sen. Quentin Kopp, an author of the 2008 initiative and so-called “father” of California high-speed rail, has subsequently denounced the plan. “There won’t be enough riders paying fares to cover operational costs,” he wrote in a letter to the Sacramento Bee last year. “The 2008 ballot measure prohibits taxpayer subsidy of this now-planned track to nowhere. As the ‘father’ of true high-speed rail, I regret its ‘horizon’ isn’t now bright, unless the governor (restores) 2008 promises to taxpayers.” Yet the governor won’t be dissuaded.

That stubborn insistence on making rail the priority – while claiming that there’s no money available for upgrading our system of roads – is why so many Californians are angry about the gas-tax increases. Instead of focusing on rebuilding California’s crumbling infrastructure, Brown and Democratic lawmakers want to build a rail system that doesn’t conform to the promises made in the 2008 statewide initiative that authorized it and may cost 20 times what the new gas tax raises each year.

Californians already have a quick and cost-effective means to travel up and down the state (Southwest Airlines). They desperately want their everyday transportation system to be upgraded, but question the state’s strange priorities. After all, when a homeowner is out of money and the roof is leaking, he doesn’t take a loan to put in a new hot tub. Given this simmering anger, there’s a high likelihood that the gas-tax increase will be repealed in November.

Steven Greenhut is contributing editor to the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

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