The Roads Most Traveled: California Introduces Infrastructure Reform

BY MALENA HANSEN

The 10/110 freeway interchange in Los Angeles, California in 2011. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

The 10/110 freeway interchange in Los Angeles, California in 2011. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

California, once again, has taken initiative to pass progressive legislation based on rhetoric from the national government. The state legislature of California recently approved Senate Bill 1, which will raise taxes on gas and diesel fuel and impose new fees on zero-emission vehicles. This piece of legislation, which California’s Democratic Governor Jerry Brown hails as a major victory, attempts to establish a new source of funding for public infrastructure, such as roads and the highway system. Senate Bill 1 changes the current system, which primarily uses federal funds, fuel excise taxes and commercial vehicle weight fees. The new bill builds on existing law, but it also introduces new appropriations which will be allocated by newly formed departments under current agencies. While the bill has been championed by Democrats in the legislature, there has been resistance along ideological lines, with strong resistance coming from left-wing groups, such as environmentalists. Additionally, there is backlash from the other side of the aisle, as California Republican representatives are fighting against the tax hikes. However, this legislation indicates a potential pathway towards infrastructure reform at the national level, which both major political parties favor. The adoption of this new legislation by California, a state that often leads the nation in terms of progressive policymaking, will test out the new method of infrastructure funding provided for by Senate Bill 1 and may influence reforms at the national level.

Senate Bill 1 aims to build on existing infrastructure legislation and create new agencies that will enact policy made possible by an increase in tax rates on gas and diesel fuels, registration fees on vehicles and fees imposed on electric vehicles. According to the the bill itself, under current law funds for public roads and highways are obtained through registration on vehicles, fuel excise taxes, commercial vehicle weight fees, local and use taxes and federal funds. However, this bill increases tax revenue from a $0.12 per gallon increase in the motor vehicle fuel tax, a $0.10 per gallon increase in the diesel excise tax, a transportation improvement fee varying between $25 and $75 based on vehicle value and a $100 annual vehicle registration fee on zero-emission vehicles for 2020 models and later, with all of these provisions to be adjusted with inflation. This new plan will raise revenues for road maintenance and rehabilitation throughout the state of California.

The bill provides for several economic measures that either amend current legislation or change existing provisions that will allocate funds to both directly fund infrastructure and establish grounds for research on the topic. Senate Bill 1 establishes the Department of Transportation within the Transportation Agency and an office of audits, which will work on street design concepts to be put into place by early 2018. Additionally, the Road Maintenance and Rehabilitation Program will ensure that the currently functioning California Transportation Commission will efficiently use the funds obtained. The bill also sets aside $200 million for counties that have approved tax increases, which the California Transportation Commission will attend to in collaboration with local agencies.

Unsurprisingly, support for Senate Bill 1 is split along ideological lines. Senate Bill 1, roundly endorsed by Governor Brown, was introduced by Democratic Senator Jim Beall, with aid from mostly Democratic legislators. The bill passed with support from the majority of Democrats, with one vote from a Republican senator, Anthony Cannella, and one vote against the measure by a Democratic senator, Steve Glazer of Orinda. Although the vote split almost evenly along party lines, there has been resistance from ideologically left-wing groups, especially environmentalists, who oppose the $100 yearly tax on electric vehicles. Environmentalists also oppose the concession given to the trucking industry, which prevents the state of California from “requiring truck drivers to upgrade to lower-emission models,” which will allow some truck drivers to keep their vehicles for 13 to 18 more years. Environmentalists, such as those from Earthjustice, argue that the trucking concession alters pollution mandates will have a negative impact on public health. This bill also faced stark opposition from anti-tax advocates who would rather operate on a system of tax credits from private investors. Infrastructure remains an issue sponsored by both major political parties. Senate Bill 1, however, represents the struggle the two parties face as they try to reconcile their different beliefs regarding infrastructure reform, as Republicans in the California Senate largely voted against it. Regardless, Senate Bill 1 marks California’s aim to implement measures at a state level before the issue is tackled at the federal level.

Senate Bill 1 is California’s feasible attempt to influence policy at the national level while simultaneously maintaining its reputation as a progressive policymaking state. President Donald Trump announced in late February that he will ask Congress for approval on his $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which follows his campaign promises to reform infrastructure policy at the national level. The Trump administration, along with the majority Republican Congress under Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, favors a plan in which the burden does not fall on taxpayers, but instead relies on tax credits given to private investors who will develop and establish infrastructure projects. However, this stands in contrast to the California bill, which will use public funds to set up the infrastructure projects. Senate Bill 1 is a viable plan because the use of public funds holds citizens responsible for infrastructure. Since it is publicly funded, the people of California have a stake in the creation of new public works projects and will therefore be interested in ensuring that they are sustainable. The bill is a sound alternative to the privatization of public facilities. California’s new tax system under Senate Bill 1 is a step in the right direction to maintain its infrastructure and establish new projects. Although other states have adopted similar policies, it is important that California, as a large, blue state, tests this new tax policy because it has traditionally inspired similar reforms at the federal level, such as California’s clean air policy, which influenced the federal Clean Air Act. SB 1 is another example of this practice, which will unfold as the tax plan is fully implemented, and has the potential to create the grounds on which national reform will be based.

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