Sunday, April 20, 2014

Why we need a local gas tax


From page A6 | February 05, 2014 | 13 Comments

It was noon, Sunday, 10 days ago. I was bicycling south on Sycamore Lane, approaching the intersection at Covell Boulevard. The light was green. Thirty yards or so ahead was a boy, about 8, alone, on his bike.

The child was riding fine, not going too fast, when he hit a sharp pothole in the bike lane, just northeast of the traffic light pole. The faulty pavement caused him to lose his balance. He fell hard to the ground.

Two pedestrians, college-aged women, were right there. They stopped and helped the boy to his feet. As I came to the scene I could see he was dazed, but OK. In that location, in the intersection, it could have been tragic.

I reported the incident and the street condition to the city of Davis. I received an email back a couple of days later, thanking me for the information. There was no promise to repair the roadway. There is no money for that. Nothing likely will be done.

Roads in Davis are getting worse all the time. Our streets are crumbling. For years, the city has been hiding its deficits by building up a road maintenance liability. That debt is catching up with us.

Civil engineers rate pavement conditions on a 100-point scale, with 100 being the best, 0 the worst. A city-commissioned report by Nichols Consulting said our citywide score in 2012 was 62. That is considered “fair.” However, at the rate we are going, our average is heading to “poor.”

Nichols wrote, “Based on an existing funding level … the condition of the network will deteriorate to a (score) of 27 in 20 years and the deferred maintenance or unfunded backlog will dramatically increase more than ten-fold from $21.4 million in 2012 to $439.4 million in 2032.”

If we spend $160.6 million over the next 20 years, Nichols concluded, we would have a PCI of 70 — the low end of “good.” But even then, “the unfunded backlog will still increase from $21.4 million to $119.8 million by 2032.”

Davis is not alone in its road maintenance crisis. Almost every city and county in our state is in bad shape. They are also deeply in debt with unfunded pensions and retiree medical benefits.

Last July, in his budget statement, Yolo County Administrator Patrick Blacklock wrote, “The road maintenance liability of $305,487,270 has yet to be addressed and staff is developing options for consideration …”

Last week, Public CEO reported, “Local streets and roads (in California) are at risk of deteriorating at a rapid pace unless new funding sources are found …”

Another recent study said that roads in Los Angeles are now in the worst shape of any major U.S. city.

Davis is considering various new levies to cover its many deficits. One not contemplated is a tax on gasoline and diesel to fix our streets. But a fuels tax is exactly what Davis and every local government in our state needs.

It’s the most equitable approach: Those who drive a lot, pay a lot; drive less, pay less.

Unfortunately, state law prohibits us from imposing our own fuels tax. However, it can be done by the Legislature with a two-thirds vote.

To see if that might happen, I sat down for coffee last week at ciocolat with state Sen. Lois Wolk. I wanted to know her reaction to my solution for the local roads crisis: a 6 cents-per-gallon tax on all gasoline and diesel sold in California, with all the funds going to local governments, all dedicated to road repairs.

In my plan, revenue collected in a specific county would stay in that county. Los Angeles keeps Los Angeles money. Yolo keeps Yolo. Mendocino keeps Mendocino.

The funds would be divided based on road miles. Davis, for example, has 163 miles of roadway. Yolo County has 759 miles. So for every $163 taken by Davis, $759 would go for county roads.

Sen. Wolk told me my idea was good. She thought there was a chance it could get support in the Legislature, but not this year, because of the election.

The senator said she well understands the crisis of crumbling local roads, and she said Gov. Jerry Brown understands the problem as well.

Wolk told me that in the governor’s proposed budget, he allocates $100 million toward this problem. Lois nodded in agreement when I said, “That’s hardly a drop in the bucket. $100 million for our entire state is not even one-third the amount that Yolo County needs.”

Currently, we are paying 53.7 cents per gallon in excise taxes on fuels. Of that, 35.3 cents goes to the state, 18.4 to the U.S. government. A 6-cent local levy would bring that up to 59.7 cents per gallon, increasing the cost by about 1.7 percent.

Drivers in California annually consume 14.61 billion gallons of gasoline, and 2.64 billion diesel. The numbers have fallen a bit over the past five years.

A 6-cent local tax would raise about $1.035 billion per year for local roads.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, Californians are now spending $13.9 billion per year on car repairs and operating costs, caused by the woeful conditions of our roads. That’s $586 per driver.

We need good and safe roads. Not maintaining them is foolish.

— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at


Discussion | 13 comments

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  • Jeff BooneFebruary 04, 2014 - 9:04 am

    California already has the second highest gasoline tax of all states (N.Y. is number one). California does not have anything close to the number of public transportation alternatives than does the smaller and denser New York. Higher gas costs in California hit the lower-income family that has to commute. It hits college students that work for a living. It hits trucking companies and drivers. For the average Davisite driving an expensive hybrid car or peddling around town, it doesn't hit hard. We may have no choice but to raise yet another tax. And in this most liberal state it has a good chance of passing. And in the end we can look back to the same reason we are seeing so many tax increase demands... the absurd bloat and overpayment of our public-sector work force.

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  • February 04, 2014 - 9:59 am

    Being that motorists are already paying a high gasoline tax to pay for the roads perhaps the state should institute a bicycle license tax to get bikers to pay their fair shair of improving the roads.

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  • Rich RifkinFebruary 04, 2014 - 5:15 pm

    It's important to understand that all of the state gas taxes go to repair state roads. The problem is that we don't have a tax tied to maintaining local roads. And the result is that local roads have been terribly neglected. What I propose would close that hole. And I believe it would pay for itself and then some by relieving drivers of billions of dollars they are now spending repairing their vehicles due to bad roads. ............ As it happens, I recently got a flat tire on my car in Sacramento. I think I hit some jagged pavement. (I am not sure as it was dark out at midnight.) I pulled over once I realized I had a flat and I changed my tire. The next day, I brought the flat tire to Big-O in Davis and learned the tire could not be repaired. So I ended up spending more than $100 for a new tire (including labor, tax and disposal fee). That's the sort of thing that does not happen on well-maintained roads. And it is going to get a lot worse in the next 10-20 years on local roads if a new source of revenues is not found.

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  • ScottFebruary 05, 2014 - 7:36 am

    great idea on the gas tax, Rich. The more you drive and use the road, the more you pay. Same logic as the "flat tax" for income. Both seem terribly simple and logical. Therefore, government will never pass either!

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  • DennisFebruary 05, 2014 - 8:38 am

    Rich you forgot the 3.5 increase in the state gas tax last July. If you include the sales tax, the tax rate on gas at the current rate is already 24.2% and you want that to go up?

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  • Rich RifkinFebruary 05, 2014 - 12:12 pm

    Dennis, it's not that I want gas taxes or any other taxes to go up. It's that it is in our best interest to have good quality roads; and without a funding mechanism for local road maintenance, we are going to wind up with Third World roads in cities and counties. We are already there are many Yolo County roads; and Olive Drive is now extremely bad. It was rated a 5 out of 100 in 2012 and it is now much worse. ......... You are right to note that we already pay high gas taxes. But none of that money goes to cities or counties. ........... Davis is presently looking at an ad valorem tax--essentially that is a bonded increase in the property tax--to repair our roads for the next 20 years. But, in my opinion, charging a retiree who owns a $600,000 house but rarely drives 50 percent more than a person whose house is valued at $400,000 but drives a big vehicle a lot of miles is illogical. It simply makes a lot more sense to base the tax for road repairs on how much you are using and damaging the roads--and a fuels tax does that better than any other tax. ............. Last minor point: the state sales tax on gas is 2.25%. It used to be taxed at the full 7.50% but it was lowered a few years ago.

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  • Noreen MazelisFebruary 05, 2014 - 5:21 pm

    Instead of repairing Davis streets and roads, our Silly Council is taking $1 million of our tax monies and throwing it at consultants. Then there's the Fifth Street fiasco . . .

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  • Austin KerrFebruary 06, 2014 - 9:26 am

    I like this idea. I'd suggest the the projected future need for road maintenance take into account that the fleet of vehicles on the road is becoming more fuel efficient as it turns over—some don't even use petroleum anymore—and the amount of vehicle miles driven (VMT) in our community will continue to change. Some fairly robust predictions on these matters is available from the California Air Resources Board, and likely the General Plans ans/or Climate Action Plans of the City of Davis and Yolo County.

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  • February 06, 2014 - 10:55 am

    Rich, under your plan how will electric vehicles pay their fair share of road maintenance?

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  • Rich RifkinFebruary 06, 2014 - 11:18 am

    Electric cars would still be exempt. That is the case now with the federal and state excise taxes on fuels. Currently, electric vehicles make up 1.4% of passenger cars in California. So in terms of collecting enough revenues from enough drivers, the other 98.6% plus commercial and farm vehicles fill the bill. Yet in the future, if electric cars grow to 10% or 20% of the market, an equivalent surcharge on electricity used to charge their cars could be imposed to make sure we have enough money to fix our local roads. The bottom line for me is that until we come up with a new source of revenues dedicated to local road maintenance, the roads will deteriorate and that is to our detriment.

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  • February 06, 2014 - 11:37 am

    So Rich, if you're rich enough to afford an electric vehicle you will get a further benefit of being able to drive on roads that others have to pay to fix.

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  • Rich RifkinFebruary 06, 2014 - 5:32 pm

    What you point out regarding electric cars is presently true. My proposal does not change that. In my 11:18 response, I suggest a way that could equitably be dealt with. ............... One thing to consider, as well, is that we have no effluent tax on exhaust from gas or diesel fuel. These costs are externalized and represent a market inefficiency. So perhaps a higher tax on gas and diesel would be justified on that basis, too.

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  • ontFebruary 07, 2014 - 1:05 am

    The Nissan Leaf goes for about $20,000. after tax credits.

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