State’s famed highways crumbling into disrepair 

click to enlarge Going nowhere: Highway traffic in California has nearly doubled in the past 30 years, but poor maintenance has given the state the nation’s second-worst pavement. - GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO
  • Going nowhere: Highway traffic in California has nearly doubled in the past 30 years, but poor maintenance has given the state the nation’s second-worst pavement.

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to fast-track an initial section of a bullet train system, perhaps by partially exempting it from environmental impact laws, even though there’s no financing on the horizon to complete the project and even though a new poll shows that most Californians don’t want to build it.

While the bullet train debate rages in the state’s capital and in the media, everyone is ignoring a far more pressing transportation issue: the deterioration of highways and roads that most Californians use every day and that were once considered to be the finest such network in the world.

Bullet train advocates toss around projections that if it isn’t built, California will have to spend a gazillion dollars on highways and airports to meet transportation demand.

However, even if the train draws the rather fanciful levels of ridership that backers claim, it will not negate the need for massive spending on highways and other facilities — not only to improve capacity, but also to make up for neglected

"Today, California’s transportation system is in jeopardy," says a massive "needs assessment" issued by the California Transportation Commission. "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 great assets. ...

"The future of the state’s economy and our quality of life depend on a transportation system that is safe and reliable, and which moves people and goods effectively."

Quite true, and the cost of neglect is massive. The commission says we need to spend $538.1 billion over the next decade — the equivalent of five bullet trains — but currently can count on less than half that amount.

Inflation has eroded gasoline taxes, scarce transportation money has been diverted to close the state’s general fund budget deficit, and funds from a 2006 transportation bond issue are drying up.

The state Department of Transportation has generated a chart of transportation spending that shows a steep drop soon.

There was a time when maintaining and enhancing California’s roadway network was near the top of the capital’s agenda for both economic reasons and civic pride. But for the past several decades — dating from Brown’s first governorship — that commitment has slipped into political obscurity.

Over the past three decades, however, as California’s population rose by about 50 percent, highway traffic doubled. The state now has the nation’s worst traffic congestion and, according to the Federal Highway Administration, its second-worst pavement conditions.

It’s a negative factor in California’s economic competitiveness and it’s a headache for millions of motorists. Why do we tolerate it?


Dan Walters covers state politics for the Sacramento Bee.


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Dan Walters

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