State steps up, fed lags out

Developments in California are an example of why a federal gas tax increase is needed

Brian W. Budzynski / August 16, 2017
Brian Budzynski

Since this edition of TM&E is largely concerned with various aspects of connected and automated vehicles and the environment they require, it was a minor felicity that I came across an interview conducted by Governing.com with California State Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Kelly. The main thrust of the interview concerned the state’s new transportation law, SB1, and why it is a positive development in transportation planning and execution.

One of the primary issues at the heart of the development of connected vehicle environments is how to adapt the present state of our infrastructure to meet the requirements of these burgeoning technologies. Such requirements run a wide gamut, from consistent lane markings to adequate funding levels to installing connected vehicle tech in public transit vehicles to reconstructing or augmenting major corridors and intersections for adaptive signal controls and pedestrian/bicyclist-first design concerns. You might say that, in a nutshell, it comes down to having a state of good repair.

At this point the Trump administration continues to waffle on its commitment to transportation infrastructure development, and the feet of Congress continue to drag. Just today, a House panel approved a bill to press autonomous vehicle regulations, while another approved a bill to slash transportation funding. Even for someone who keeps an eye on transportation funding pretty regularly, it’s tough to follow and even tougher to know where it will all lead. Which makes the efforts in California particularly promising.

State lawmakers recently passed the first gas tax since 1989, and it is expected to generate enough revenue to flood a 10-year $54 billion building program. But the focus is not on big, flashy new projects; rather, the lion’s share of these dollars will be funneled toward what Kelly says is “[putting] our pavement and our bridges in conditions that they haven’t been in for decades while we’ve ignored funding for them.”

Some 65% of SB1 monies will be aimed directly at a program called “Fix It First.”

Kelly goes on to specify that over the 10 years of the program, the state will repave 17,000 miles of highway across the state and repair or rehabilitate more than 500 bridges that are presently either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

While that bridge figure is a drop in the bucket (the state has over 1,200 bridges ranked “poor” by the FHWA), the passage of SB1 and the operational philosophy of “Fix It First” are indicative both of a state throwing money where it belongs and the beginning of a pattern among state departments of transportation to rip away the gossamer cloak of refusal when it comes to increasing their state’s gas tax. Tax increases are never popular, but, as with SB1, when the monies are being routed directly into immediate methods of improvement, it is difficult to argue against all citizens paying their share.

It is a boon to the eventually (inevitably) more widespread presence of connected road and bridge environments, and a challenge to our leaders at the federal level to consider—and consider seriously, in a manner divorced from party politics—that present tax levels are never going to adequately serve our transportation system. Slashing other government programs to fund roads and bridges is the fool’s way. California should be taken as an example: Stabilizing dedicated funding sources in order to meet the needs of its present infrastructure. The fed hasn’t touched the gas tax since Michael Jordan tried to play baseball. It’s time to up the game.

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Budzynski is managing editor of TM&E.

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