CSAC Bulletin Article

Self-Help Measures Vital to Filling Transportation Funding Shortfall

November 3, 2016

While CSAC continues to push for a funding and reform solution during the Legislature’s ongoing special session on transportation, local governments across the state have already stepped up with local measures that at least partially fill the gap left by state and federal inaction. CSAC reported on the release of the biennial update of the 2016 Local Streets and Roads Needs Assessment last week.

As counties recall, the report continues to paint a dire picture of the state of California’s local street and road infrastructure. Collectively, local governments in California face a shortfall of $73 billion over the next decade compared to funding that would be needed to improve our local streets and roads—including essential features like sidewalks, signage and storm drains—and maintain them in a state of good repair.

Statewide, there are 14 local “self-help” sales tax measures on the ballot next week. Twenty counties representing over 80% of the state’s population have already voted to tax themselves in order to maintain and improve local transportation infrastructure to the tune of about ninety-five billion dollars. Approximately twenty-five percent of this funding is dedicated to the improvement of local streets and roads—activities that have traditionally been financed through user fees like the gasoline tax.

A clear trend from the 2016 Needs Assessment was an ongoing decrease in the state share of investment in the local street and road network, while federal funding stayed at approximately the same percentage and local funding increased. While any new funding is helpful, the two-thirds voter approval threshold for passing a self-help special tax has proven difficult to meet in some parts of the state.

In other areas, the sales tax base simply isn’t large enough to make a meaningful dent in transportation needs with a self-help measure. Moreover, despite new local revenues, a huge gap has persisted, and it’s difficult to imagine that local funding, let alone sales taxes, can fill the yawning $7.3 billion annual shortfall by itself.

All of these difficulties point to the need for a broader solution that invests in the entire state highway and local roadway network in a fair and comprehensive way. Nevertheless, the widespread popularity of self-help measures points to the voters’ desire for investments in maintaining and improving the transportation system.

Voters in California have made it clear that they will support new funding when it’s protected for transportation purposes and delivers tangible results as promised. The success of self-help measures provides important insights to accountability measures that are vital to ensuring the success of a statewide transportation funding and reform effort.

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