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Why state roads may be deteriorating

Former State Sen. George Runner, who represents District 1 on the State of California Board of Equalization, claims that the reason California’s roads are so bad is that the state has the wrong priorities in how it spends its transportation dollars.


He may be right.


He says the 42 percent gas tax hike and new $65 per-vehicle registration fee that includes hybrids and electric vehicles which Gov. Jerry Brown is promoting, is not needed. He says the problem is not that there isn’t enough money from already high gasoline taxes, but that the money is being spent with wrong priorities.


The roads are being allowed to deteriorate, he says, because huge amounts are being spent on projects that don’t improve roads.


“Budgets are about priorities and the governor and legislative leaders have a say on how tax dollars are spent,” Runner writes in the San Francisco Chronicle. “State revenues have grown by roughly 50 percent in just under 10 years. And, apparently, Brown thinks the state can afford a $68 billion — and growing — high-speed rail project that still hasn’t found a way to deal with the Tehachapi Mountains.”


A lot of the gasoline taxes, he says, are spent on mass transit, the most egregious project of which is the High-Speed Rail line presently under construction in Madera and Fresno counties, and within a generation to connect most of the Central Valley.


Taxpayers eventually will have to bail out that rail line, Runner has said, because no other source of money to build it has been identified.


Economic projections indicate that fare box income from the line won’t come close to paying the cost.


And it will be technologically obsolete before it opens, say experts who want to build faster and cheaper systems.


“If Brown’s plan to raise the gas tax passes,” Runner writes, “Californians could end up paying as much as 80 cents in combined federal and state taxes for each gallon of gasoline — a rate far higher than any other state. Not to mention we already have some of the highest gas prices in the nation.”


Runner happens to be a Republican, and his points of view no doubt are the opposite of Democrats who believe the state is leading in transportation rather than being behind the rest of the country.


Those who travel to neighboring states by truck or car know from the get-go that those neighboring states have better roads and cheaper fuel than California.


However, the traffic counts on California’s highways are much higher than on the roads of those less-populated states. The wear and tear is greater. But so is the amount of tax collected.


One part of the debate is whether gasoline taxes should pay for public transit as much as they do. Shouldn’t fare boxes bear a bigger share of the burden? If public transit is really more efficient, shouldn’t buses and light rail trains be cheaper to run and more likely to be profitable?


Are the transit systems operating in the public interest, or in some other interest?


Runner may not be entirely right, but he has good points. Why should we pay more taxes until we know the vast sums we already shell out are being used wisely?