Should Californians try to get a great road system without paying for it? Or do we grow up and realize there’s no free lunch?
That was the message (in my judgment) delivered earlier this month by Fresno Transportation Authority Executive Director Mike Leonardo to an advisory group focused on local roads.
Leonardo, ever the tactful administrator, wasn’t quite as blunt as my opening paragraph when he addressed the Fresno Council of Governments’ Measure C Citizens Oversight Committee on July 12. He did nothing more than present the facts about the current status of the local and state road systems, and the financial and political pressures they face.
But the facts were all Leonardo needed:
1.) The roads in the cities and unincorporated areas of Fresno County are facing more than a half-billion dollars in unmet maintenance needs.
2.) The average Pavement Condition Index (PCI) for statewide roads is 66. This is “at risk” territory.
3.) The average PCI number for Fresno County was 74 in 2008; it had fallen to 69 a mere six years later. If this trend isn’t halted, the PCI number for Fresno County is expected to drop to 53 over the next decade.
4.) California keeps growing. The state economy (fifth biggest in the world) depends on a strong system of roads. What is true for California is true for Fresno County and the Central Valley.
5.) Senate Bill 1, California’s year-old legislation to address the state’s aging transportation infrastructure, is expected to generate over the next 10 years about $38 billion in roads/transit benefits.
6.) SB 1 over the next 10 years is expected to have an economic impact on the state of more than $144 billion (additional economic output and earnings). It’s also expected to generate nearly 700,000 job years (one job for one year).
7.) SB 1 over the next 10 years is expected to produce $400 million for road rehabilitation in Fresno County. This money would likely help fund Fresno’s Veterans Boulevard project, among many others.
8.) The benefits of SB 1 are threatened by an attempt to effectively repeal the legislation. The California Voter Approval for Gas and Vehicles Taxes Initiative is on the November general election ballot. Among other things, this initiative would require majority voter approval for any future fuel or vehicle taxes.
9.) Measure C, Fresno’s half-cent sales tax for transportation, expires in 2027. In the world of voter-approved tax extensions, that’s just around the corner. Losing funds from both SB 1 and Measure C would be devastating to our local/regional road network.
10.) Everyone complains about the condition of our roads. Far fewer understand that you get what you pay for.
“SB 1 isn’t even enough,” Leonardo told the committee. “It’s a big slug of what we need. But it isn’t enough.”
He echoed the sentiment when looking at the local transportation tax.
“Measure C is absolutely critical to local agencies,” Leonard said. “But it’s not nearly enough.”
Leonardo’s hour-long review, featuring a 24-page Power Point presentation, was based on state and local statistics. Leonardo’s facts sparked considerable comment from committee members.
Getting from Point A to Point B in the easiest and most cost-effective manner has been pivotal to mankind since the dawn of civilization. Needless to say, transportation is a huge topic. Leonardo and committee members inevitably wandered – enthusiastically, I hasten to add – from subpoint to subpoint.
For example, there’s the constantly changing nature of our retail sector. Warehouses have always been a big part of that sector. The trend these days is toward moving product as quickly as possible from warehouse to store or, on an increasing scale, the residential doorstep.
This so-called “last mile” challenge means more delivery vehicles on the road, and for longer periods of time.
Then there is the significance of the Pavement Condition Index (PCI) number. Recall that the state and Fresno County PCI numbers are in the mid- to high 60s. In a nutshell, a PCI number of 66 puts a road system at a critical turning point. If maintenance and rehabilitation don’t become a priority, the system continues to decline and the PCI number then drops quickly. Fixing terrible roads is much more expensive than maintaining decent roads. The inevitable result: Officials are forced to spend scarce resources on maintaining the decent roads, leaving the terrible roads to their fate. And, of course, there are many people who, due to circumstances, must use those terrible roads. We have another form of social inequality.
In the end, though, the July 12 meeting centered on the need to take action.
Committee members wanted to make sure Leonardo didn’t wait too long before revving up the Measure C extension campaign. I suspect they were preaching to the choir.
More immediately, committee members wanted to know what transportation advocates could do about the SB 1 repeal effort. Committee members understood all too well the dynamic at play: No one likes higher taxes. Everyone distrusts Sacramento. Life is full of hard choices. Don’t the voters realize all the good things that a decently-funded transportation system delivers to a society?
It is the nature of his job, Leonardo said, that he can’t publicly advocate one way or another on the SB 1 repeal issue. However, Leonardo added, he can make the same presentation to public groups that he delivered to the Measure C citizens advisory committee.
Leonardo’s presentation compared SB 1’s average cost per citizen to the average cost of other popular consumer items (cable, cell phone, coffee habit, Internet). SB 1’s cost is by far the lowest.
“With SB 1 in place, transportation is quite a bargain in California,” Leonardo said.
I’m betting Mike Leonardo is busy this fall delivering his fact-filled transportation review to Fresno County voters.