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The Nasty, Ugly Truth about Transportation Funding

TRANSPORTATION POLITICS--While any reasonable person will acknowledge the need for transportation/infrastructure (T/I) funding, too many of us are acting blind, deaf and dumb (especially the "dumb" part) about our hideous state/federal funding reality: by treating T/I funding as an afterthought, we've forced and ignored the reality of high gas prices as a necessary means of funding something that should be part of the general fund. 

 

T/I funding is NOT, in the minds and hearts of most taxpayers, some abstract thing to be done as an afterthought.  

Whenever some gas leak occurs at Porter Ranch, or some lead poisoning occurs in Flint, Michigan, and either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump decries our lack of modern infrastructure, it's not hard to presume that Americans are wondering why we're not prioritizing and paying for our infrastructure. 

Certainly the idea of raising gas taxes yet again is an idea to be considered, but let's not delude ourselves to the following realities: 

1) Too much is depending on too few--motorists aren't the only ones relying on mobility and infrastructure, and not all of us are lucky enough to live next to the ever-changing locations of where our next job will be. 

2) Rising gas prices affect food and other prices that hit and hurt poor and middle-class Americans in their wallets and their stomachs--yes, we need to pay for our infrastructure, but must we prevent families from eating well and saving for college and retirement in the process? 

3) With the exception of far left-wing or far right-wing whackadoodles, cheap fuel and cheap water and cheap food (and cheap rent/housing costs!) are desired by most human beings, and not out of basic greed.  Simply put, we want to live within our means, work a reasonable number of hours per week, and have a quality of life. 

The fact remains that--all lies, distractions, diverted talking points and distortions aside--one need not trust or even like our nation's and world's petroleum-producing companies to recognize that their profit is NOT the leading cause of why our gas and utility prices often go so high.   

It's the state and federal government who want more people to use more gas, and to pay more per gallon, in order to fund transportation.  Ditto for water usage and prices, and just about every other utility we can point to, but let's focus on gas prices: 

1) If we use less gas and less water, like good Americans and good Californians, we get rewarded by higher costs and/or higher taxes.  Gas prices are going down, and now our state's transportation projects are being cut by $754 million over the next five years (a 38% decrease!) because of decreased gas tax revenues. So we're going to have to pay MORE somehow, right? 

2) With Californians paying extraordinary transportation/environmental taxes for their gasoline, as evidenced by our paying a dollar or more per gallon than the majority of the nation, we're being asked repeatedly to raise sales and any other innovative taxes for government services that should ALREADY be prioritized and paid for. 

There actually IS an answer to ensuring our roads, sewers, water pipelines, gas and electricity lines and other T/I needs are paid for, but it's based on some basic premises--and will certainly need some courage and elbow-swinging that we've yet to see among our political leaders: 

1) We can't build our house without making sure that our floor and walls are strong and in good repair.  That means that the basic premise of our health, environment and economy (in other words, water and roads and utilities) must be paid for FIRST, not last. 

2) So long as we ignore the harsh reality that those portions of our state/federal budget which are guaranteed funding are not being spent well, we prevent all of our taxpayer and other revenue from being spent well. 

In particular, education is an example where administrative efficiency (and a whole lotta reform, and perhaps a whole lotta pink slips that need to start at the top of the education food chain) and spending well must begin. Reversing the high guaranteed percentage of the state budget that we foolishly have voted in for education would be priority #1. 

One absolutely, certainly CAN be pro-education and demand that education dollars be spent better, because throwing more money at education certainly hasn't enhanced our educational cost-effectiveness, and it certainly hasn't helped us achieve our educational goals. 

Ditto for our jails and our first-responders--one certainly CAN be pro-law and order and raise the issue of why our prison costs are so high and so inefficient.  Some folks deserve a raise, and some do not--but unsustainable costs are just that...unsustainable. 

Ditto for our health, human services and social welfare programs--those of our fellow citizens who have been devastated by legitimate health and economic disasters get too few resources, while those of our neighbors who need to be required to work for their public benefits get too many. 

And ditto for our transportation/infrastructure costs--are they high because we need to catch up on decades- overdue T/I projects, or because we've paid out too much in salaries, benefits and pensions in a manner that is absolutely unsustainable.

If we must tax, then we must do so.  If we must spend, then we must do so.  But the need to proclaim we're raising revenues for T/I and then spending it somewhere else just won't fly anymore. 

A courageous and elbow-swinging Legislature and Congress is arguably the best way to achieve true budgetary reform, despite all the hollering from the usual suspects that we're likely to endure. 

But if that doesn't happen, expect more "Proposition 13" style of ballot measures in our future. 

Because if tough, innovative, and courageous--but visible--reform doesn't occur, the electorate will have no choice but to strike out in blind rage in order to force the hand of their governing leaders to ... well ... govern.

 

(Ken Alpern is a Westside Village Zone Director and Board member of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee.  He is co-chair of the CD11Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at  [email protected].   He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)

-cw