California's roads and expressways obviously are crowded and crumbling. The state, along with its many other problems, has spent almost four decades neglecting its road infrastructure. The recently released Final Report of the California Transportation Commission provided 191 pages of details. "Today, California's transportation system is in jeopardy," it concluded. "Investments to preserve transportation systems simply have not kept pace with the demands on them, and this underfunding — decade after decade — has led to the decay of one of the state's greatest assets."
The report's authors warned that failing to fix the system would "lead to further decay and a deterioration of service from which it may take many years to recover," which could jeopardize the "state's economy and our quality of life." The cost to fix the system was estimated at $536 billion through 2020. Yet the state is expected to raise, and spend, only $242 billion, leaving $294 billion unfunded. So that's yet another state budget deficit, to go along with the $20 billion general-fund structural deficit and the $500 billion state employee pension-fund deficit.
What to do? Obviously, the bullet-train boondoggle needs to be scrapped. Next, we need roads repairs and construction — lots of both. How to pay for it all? One way would be to increase gas taxes. "In 1953, as California began its freeway building boom, drivers paid 6 cents a gallon in state gasoline taxes," reported the San Jose Mercury News. "Adjusted for inflation, that figure would be 51 cents today. The state gas tax is currently 35 cents."
The problem with that is that such tax money could be diverted to nonroad uses, such as the high-speed rail project, Bob Poole told us; he's the director of transportation policy at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation. He added that even if the higher taxes were spent on roads, the funding could go to pork projects in the districts of powerful legislators, instead of ending gridlock. And hard-pressed Americans are resisting tax increases of any kind.
A better idea, he said, is to expand toll roads. The commission report did mention tolls, but inadequately.
A toll is "a user fee specific to the highway used," Mr. Poole explained. "It won't be a piggy bank for what politicians think is nice." He admitted that people are resistant to toll roads. "But if you point out that a specific road will be built, they become more favorable," especially if it's presented as an alternative to a gas tax, sales tax or other tax.