In a year characterized by voters who resist government growth and increased taxes, seven of nine San Francisco Bay-area counties are proposing auto registration fee hikes in a voter referendum. Wherever Proposition AA passes – if it passes – drivers in those counties will pay an additional $10 per year. An additional $18 vehicle registration surcharge is being voted on in a separate statewide proposition (Proposition 21).
What will the money fund? The county-by-county vote is to fix potholes and shore up public transportation. The maximum total of $54 million raised per year by Prop AA would be allocated among local streets and roads (50 percent of funds raised), public transportation (25 percent) and bike- and pedestrian-safety (25 percent) projects. The statewide registration hike would fund its park system and wildlife programs (registered vehicles would receive state park access free of charge).
Will voters pass either measure, adding up to $28 in annual vehicle registration fees? The leader of the counties’ vote, San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, says that two polls of voters indicate support running at about 60 percent, enough to achieve the simple majority required to pass the referendum.
Mirkarimi makes an official argument for the measure on smartvoter.org, a non-partisan voter-education website for Californians. “Proposition AA will improve transportation for pedestrians, transit riders, drivers, and bicyclists,” he says. “Funds raised by Proposition AA will only be used for transportation projects that benefit those paying the fee and lessen the impact of driving on the environment,” adding that those funds will be locally controlled and cannot be diverted by the State to other uses.
“Ten dollars per year is a reasonable fee for drivers to pay for smoother streets, safer travel, and more reliable public transportation,” Mirkarimi argues. “Vote yes on Proposition AA to make getting around San Francisco easier and safer for everyone.”
Oppositional voices are easy to find, however. Most argue that this is an example of creeping taxation, that previous taxes have been imposed to accomplish the same thing.
Some of the worst roads in the nation
Motorists who endure the snarl of traffic in combination with poor pavement are expected to support the measure. Grumbling about potholes is a fairly typical conversation starter on radio talk shows and around office water coolers, but there is third-party evidence to back up the complaining.
TRIP, a national transportation research association, says that about 25 percent of all urban roads in the U.S. are in poor condition, and that vehicle damages from potholes and other pavement breaks cost individual motorists about $413 per vehicle per year. But conditions in the San Francisco-Oakland region are considerably worse than the U.S. average: the area ranks second-worst (to Los Angeles) with 61 percent of roads deemed as poor, with $700 in damages for every car traversing the metropolitan area.
(In case you thought such honors went to snow-bound cities like Detroit, think again. The Motor City ranks above the national average with 36 percent of roads in poor condition. But pavement deterioration such as potholes results from moisture, wear-and-tear from heavy traffic and neglect – one dollar not spent on pavement preservation results in seven dollars that need to be spent in road reconstruction a few years later.)
Reporting on bad roads in the area reveal the presence – and cost – of poor pavement:
- The city of Oakland conducted a “pothole blitz” in May 2010, exceeding its goal to fill a thousand potholes on streets of East and Central Oakland over a two-week period (West and North Oakland were also remedied in the campaign). A mayoral candidate, Don Perata, called into the public works department to report his own count of 30 potholes in a five-block stretch of streets. Perata had made headlines a few years earlier over a “virtual minefield of potholes” at the corner of Oakland Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard in the city, reports SFGate.com, the online version of the San Francisco Chronicle.
- The city of Petaluma’s roads received a rating of a 55 out of 100 from California’s Metropolitan Planning Commission, which oversees Bay Area transportation infrastructure. A score that low (the greater Bay Area ranks a score of 66) deems the city’s streets “at risk,” reports Petaluma360.com, which details how Petaluma’s capital improvement projects are prioritizing capital improvements. This means they are applying a thin asphalt overlay to streets that are just beginning to show signs of wear, an approach at odds with the “worst first” strategy employed elsewhere. “Preventive maintenance is so important to saving money in the long run,” says Larry Zimmer, who leads the project. “It’s far more critical to fix these than failed streets (those that fall below a 25 score).”
- San Jose Mercury-News columnist Gary Richards broke the news to his readers who wrote in to report particularly egregious road deterioration (on I-680 near Walnut Creek and Highway 17 on its Santa Clara County side) that funding was tied up in the state legislature in the fall 2010 session. “I told you last week that the rebuilding of the Tully Road-Highway 101 interchange in San Jose might not start this fall as planned, as contracts are being held up for lack of funding,” Richards writes. “Now add the repaving of Highway 17 and I-680 to the list. With the rainy season approaching, that almost guarantees that work will be pushed back until next spring.”
Promoters of safer and more economical smooth highways of course advocate for passage of the referendum. Bert Sandman, executive director of Transportation California, a coalition of business, labor and government organizations that promote sound transportation policies, said it is critical to the health and safety of residents that the state invests in basic safety improvements and maintenance on streets and highways.
“Much of our infrastructure dates back to the post-World War II boom and even before,” Sandman said in a prepared statement. “It is simply wearing out, and we are failing to invest in essential upkeep.”
Whether or not the measure passes may be driven by who votes in the hotly contested gubernatorial and U.S. senate races, as well as the Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana – although no poll has linked any of these issues to suggest one outcome or another as a result of an electoral coattail effect.