Local highway improvements could be delayed as funding dries up

Earlier this month, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian received a letter from the California Transportation Commission. It was not good news.

The letter said funding for the State Transportation Improvement Program has been drastically curtailed for the 2015-16 fiscal year, and three highway improvement projects planned for San Luis Obispo County totaling $15 million will likely not be funded. 

The three projects most in danger of delay are the widening of Route 46 east of Paso Robles, widening of Route 227 south of Airport Road in San Luis Obispo, and improvements to the southbound lanes of Highway 101 through Shell Beach. 

Some existing projects, such as the Brisco Road interchange in Arroyo Grande, could be delayed.

“It is dire news for our region and the state that funding has deteriorated to such a level that we cannot program any new projects,” said Ron De Carli, executive director of the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, or SLOCOG, the local agency that coordinates highway funding.

The next three months will be crucial as SLOCOG and the state Legislature look for ways to make up for the funding gap, De Carli said. SLOCOG has until December to decide which road improvement projects it wants to pursue, and the state Transportation Commission will act on whether to fund those requests in April.

Funding for the projects has dried up because it is based on a gasoline excise tax that was recently reduced from 18 cents per gallon to 12.5 cents per gallon. Also, the growing popularity of more fuel-efficient and zero-fuel vehicles is reducing the amount of gasoline sold.

Gasoline excise taxes are most commonly based on a per-gallon charge but can also be based on sales taxes. The state Board of Equalization sets the formula for these taxes on gasoline annually.

“This is a volatile source of funding, since it is subject to adjustments based on fluctuations in the price of gasoline,” said Will Kempton, executive director of the Transportation Commission, in his letter to Achadjian, who is vice chairman of the Assembly’s committee on transportation.

In June, Gov. Jerry Brown called an emergency session of the Legislature to address the transportation crisis. No permanent solutions have yet come out of the session.

Republicans have introduced a plan to fund transportation infrastructure using existing resources, which has identified more than $6 billion in available revenue including $1 billion from vehicle weight fees, Achadjian said.

Forty-four percent of this amount would be available for STIP funding. Achadjian said he “looks forward to working on both rehabilitation of existing infrastructure and the investment in new projects to keep our state running.”

Democrats have proposed raising $3.5 billion a year by increasing gasoline excise taxes by 10 cents a gallon and increasing vehicle registration and license fees.

De Carli is also considering creating a new local source that could fund highway improvements. San Luis Obispo County could become what is known as a self-help county.

Self-help counties are ones that have passed a ballot measure to raise the sales tax to fund transportation improvement projects. There are 20 self-help counties in the state and 15 that are considering becoming one, including San Luis Obispo County.

An increase of the sales tax of one half cent would generate an estimated $22 million a year, De Carli said. Such increases require approval of 67 percent of the electorate.

However, polling of 600 likely voters conducted in May showed that only 44 percent would support such an increase over a 20-year period.

De Carli said he would need to work with cities and service clubs in the county to generate more support for a sales tax increase before considering putting such a measure on the ballot.