San Luis Obispo County stands to lose millions of dollars in transportation funding if voters approve a referendum repealing a statewide gas tax, which recently qualified for the November ballot.
The ballot measure would repeal Senate Bill 1, which includes a 12-cent hike in the base gasoline excise and increased vehicle registration fees and became law in 2017. It would also require voters to approve new transportation fuel taxes and road fees.
The tax and fee increases will provide more than $5 billion per year in statewide transportation funds. About $16 million will go to the San Luis Obispo County area during fiscal year 2018-19, according to the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG).
Of that funding, some will be used for highway improvements, some for city streets and roads maintenance and some for public transit systems.
Additional state grant money is also available for larger projects, such as the $136 million overpass planned for the deadly Highway 41-Highway 46 Cholame "Y" intersection.
The repeal argument
Opponents of the tax say money to fix California's roads should come out of the state's general fund, not added to drivers' price at the pump.
The state has accumulated a sizeable $6 billion budget surplus, and those in favor of repeal say that money should go toward transportation infrastructure.
Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, who represents the 35th District in Sacramento, voted against SB 1 and continues to insist it's not needed to fix the state's roads.
“The voters clearly want a choice with respect to the gas tax, and I trust the voters to make the right decision," Cunningham said in a statement to The Tribune.
"I voted against the gas tax on the Assembly floor. The reality is that the Legislature has the resources to spend on roads, with or without SB 1. Yesterday, the governor signed a budget that reflects a surplus of more than $6 billion. We simply have to prioritize roads within the budget, and dedicate all vehicle-related taxes and fees to that purpose. I co-authored a bill in 2017 to do exactly that."
Pushing back against repeal
But Ron DeCarli, executive director of SLOCOG, said San Luis Obispo County's roads will crumble without the additional funds. And if the gas tax is repealed, legislators likely won't have the appetite to push for additional road funding for another decade.
That means projects like the Cholame "Y" overpass, which Cunningham has lobbied for, could be in jeopardy, DeCarli said.
"If SB 1 gets repealed, all these projects will be questioned by the Transportation Commission," he said.
State Sen. Bill Monning, who represents the Central Coast region, agreed, saying there's no alternative way to pay for transportation infrastructure projects. In addition, while all taxpayers add to the general fund, SB 1 is a user-based tax, he said.
"First and foremost, this is a public safety issue," Monning said.
Although some of the funding for the Cholame "Y" project has been secured, it may become smaller in scope or be delayed longer than it would be if SB 1 dollars remain available.
"If SB 1 goes away, it's not going to be a $136 million project out there," DeCarli said.
Even so, Cunningham said he's committed to seeing the highway improvements happen.
"My job in the Assembly is to advocate for our regional transportation needs regardless of the funding mechanism, which I will continue to do," he said. "Over the last 18 months, we have drawn attention to the situation at Highways 41/46,and convinced the Transportation Commission to adopt a final plan to fund improvements. That should remain a top state priority."
How local gas tax dollars are spent
On a smaller scale, much of the local gas tax funds are used to repave dilapidated roads throughout San Luis Obispo County.
The county government received $2.3 million in SB 1 money during fiscal year 2017-18, according to Joshua Roberts, manager of the Public Works Department's transportation division.
It's expected to get $6.5 million during fiscal year 2018-2019 — the first full year of funding, he said.
Officials slated the first few million dollars to pave O'Donovan Road in Creston and Bennett Way and Main Street in Templeton.
Next year, gas tax money will fund 20 more road-paving projects in the North County and in Oceano in the South County.
Gas tax money is distributed to local jurisdictions every month, Roberts said. A repeal of the tax would likely slow the county's five-year road repair plan, he said.
"Kind of like your budget at home, you have to make choices," Roberts said.