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Gas tax funds fixed California state roads and transit, ending ‘high risk’ label

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While Southern California drivers may not have noticed due to the plethora of potholes created by excessive rainfall, the state’s roads are no longer sounding alarm bells.

That’s because for the first time in 16 years, the state’s highways, freeways and transit systems are off the “high-risk list.”

On Thursday, the California State Auditor removed the designation, attributing the passing grade to progress in repaving freeways, adding on-ramp and off-ramp meters, fixing bridges and unclogging culverts that results in better drainage.

“The auditor’s findings are a testament to the substantial progress Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission and our partners have made as we work together to improve and rebuild our state’s critical transportation infrastructure,” said California Transportation Secretary Toks Omishakin in a prepared statement.

Omishakin attributes the improvements to SB 1, the 2017 law that increased the gasoline excise tax and funnels about $5.4 billion each year toward transportation improvements. It was the first increase in the gasoline tax in 23 years and established a steady transportation funding source.

Since the state first was declared “high risk” in 2007, trade groups and the state auditor have been making dire predictions about a crumbling transportation infrastructure. In 2013, the auditor said it would take $290 billion to improve the state’s highways, roads and transit systems by 2023.

“We were at a high risk for not having enough money to maintain our roads,” explained Lauren Wonder, Caltrans spokesperson, on Thursday, Aug. 24. “SB1 gave us the stable funding source, adjusted the gas tax for inflation and established an inspector general who monitored progress each year.”

Caltrans listed the following projects completed with SB1 dollars:

• Repaved 15,000 lane miles on the state highway system resulting in 99% of pavement in good or fair condition.

• Fixed 1,512 bridges — bypassing the goal of repairing 500 bridges that was set in SB1.

• Repaired 578,285 linear feet of culverts, a three-fold jump from before SB1 became law, and cleaned out 1.6 million linear feet of culverts. About 90% of state highway and freeway drainage systems are listed in good or fair condition.

“Culverts are where the storm water goes,” said Wonder. “If you don’t have the proper-sized culverts, you will have water backed up onto the highway.”

But potholes are still making drivers’ lives miserable.

The Los Angeles Bureau of Street Services reported receiving 19,279 requests from December 2022 through early April 2023 to fix potholes. In early spring, it had repaired 17,459 of them.

Besides roads, SB1 funding also reached LA Metro, which uses the tax dollars for a variety of capital projects.

SB1 has contributed to funding the Gold Line (now A Line) extension to Pomona; and is adding funding to use for designing and eventually constructing the West Santa Ana Branch light-rail (from downtown Los Angeles to Artesia) and for improvements on the G (Orange) Line in the San Fernando Valley.

In addition, the added gasoline tax is helping to fund a new 57 Freeway and 60 Freeway interchange in Diamond Bar and City of Industry, improving truck lanes on the 5 Freeway in the Santa Clarita Valley and upgrading the 71 Freeway in Pomona.

Now that the state is no longer officially “high risk,” what’s next?

“It just means we are not being watched as ‘high risk.’ But we are not going to take the pedal off the metal. Caltrans will still make sure the transportation infrastructure is in working order,” Wonder said.

Besides state funding, California also has received federal transportation dollars.

Since November 2021, the Golden State has received more than $22 billion in federal infrastructure funding, including nearly $16 billion in federal transportation funding to upgrade the roads, bridges, rail, public transit, airports, electric vehicle charging network, ports and waterways, Caltrans reported.

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