Brown’s New Transportation Taxes Will Hurt Working-Class Commuters Most

By Marc Joffe
March 30, 2017

On March 29, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders announced a 10-year $52.4 billion transportation plan that will boost the cost of living dramatically for working-class commuters.

Transportation projects in the plan, now part of Senate Bill 1, will be funded by additional vehicle registration fees and a 12-cent per gallon increase in fuel taxes. While the registration fees will be higher for more expensive vehicles, the new gas tax is regressive – a heavy burden on already hard-pressed working-class families.

Scheduled for a vote next week, SB1 will have to earn a two-thirds majority in each chamber to become law.

The state’s renewed commitment to fixing roads and bridges is encouraging, but some aspects of the plan are worrisome.

Due to rising housing prices along the coast, many Californians have opted to accept long commutes from the Inland Empire, Eastern Contra Costa County and other distant suburbs. The higher gas tax will make these long commutes more expensive.

By national standards, California already has very high fuel costs. According to AAA statistics, the average gas price in California is 31 cents higher than the Nevada average, 72 cents higher than the Arizona average and 85 cents higher than the Texas average. People have been moving from California to these lower cost states for many years, and the new taxes and fees in SB1 could exacerbate that trend.

Although much of the gas tax revenue will be devoted to roads and bridges, some of the money will be siphoned off for more debatable purposes. Some $7.5 billion will be spent to “improve local public transportation.” But many of these systems are not cost-effective.  As we reported recently, most transit agencies recover less than 20% of their costs from passenger fares. In Livermore, for example, the local transit authority incurred costs of $10.53 per passenger in 2015, recovering only 14% of that in fares.  It would be better for riders and taxpayers to reduce service, and instead provide subsidized Lyft and Uber rides for those who cannot afford them.

The bill also devotes $1 billion to bicycle and pedestrian projects. While bicycle commuting provides great exercise and is good for the environment, it is simply not an option for many working-class commuters. Instead, bicycle infrastructure often benefits affluent, recreational riders. Is it fair to require struggling families in the Inland Empire to pay more for gas so that Silicon Valley techies can go more places on $12,000 Trek bikes?