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What’s At Stake For San Diego In Proposition 6 Gas Tax Vote

A car drives over a bridge on Pacific Highway deemed structurally deficient b...

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: A car drives over a bridge on Pacific Highway deemed structurally deficient by the federal government, Oct. 17, 2018.

What's At Stake For San Diego In Proposition 6 Gas Tax Vote


Kiana Valentine, senior legislative representative, California State Association of Counties

Richard Rider, chairman, San Diego Tax Fighters


Proposition 6, a measure to repeal last year's increase to the state gas tax, could be one of the most consequential issues on the November ballot, as the state and local governments struggle to repair crumbling roads and bridges.

The state legislature last year passed a law, called SB 1, that raised the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon. It also raised vehicle fees by between $25 and $175, depending on the value of the car, and in 2020 it will begin adjusting the gas tax to inflation.

Prop 6 would roll back the increase to the gas tax and vehicle fees, easing the direct costs of car ownership but eliminating billions of dollars in funding for transportation infrastructure statewide. It would also make future gas tax increases far more difficult to pass by requiring the approval of voters, on top of the two-thirds majority needed in the state Assembly and Senate, plus the governor's signature, which are already required by current law.

Reported by Kris Arciaga

Why raise the gas tax?

The main reason behind the state's gas tax increase was a frustration with the pace of road repair. California has an estimated backlog of $130 billion in transportation infrastructure needs — and a number of factors have contributed to that deficit.

One is inflation. California's gas tax is a flat, per-gallon fee — not a percentage, like the sales tax — and the last time the state raised the gas tax was in 1994. Over the past 24 years, inflation has eaten away at the purchasing power of the state's gas tax revenues. The left-leaning California Budget & Policy Center estimates SB 1 didn't even bring the gas tax back to 1994 levels when adjusting for inflation.

Another factor contributing to the state's infrastructure backlog is the increasing fuel efficiency of cars. Hybrids and electric vehicles contribute just as much to the wear and tear on roads and bridges as conventional automobiles, but their drivers buy less gas, and therefore pay far less in gas taxes. And the state's population growth and trend toward sprawling development have led to more cars on the road driving longer distances, accelerating the decay of the infrastructure they use.

How is the money being spent locally?

San Diego County has been promised a sizable share of the roughly $52 billion the state is expected to collect through SB 1 in the law's first decade. The widening of Interstate 5 in North County was awarded $195 million — one of the largest single funding earmarks in the state.

Half of the annual gas tax funding from SB 1 is distributed by state agencies while the other half has gone directly to cities and counties to spend on local priorities. The city of San Diego is spending all of its local share — about $31.6 million over the previous and current fiscal years — on street resurfacing. Most other cities in the county have done the same.

The state has created a map of projects with SB 1 funding. Other local projects include increased public transit service on the Blue Line trolley, culvert replacements along freeways to prevent flooding and retrofitting of local bridges and freeway overpasses.

The "Yes on 6" campaign is being spearheaded by Carl DeMaio, a local conservative talk radio host and former San Diego city councilman. He rejected the assertion that a vote for Prop 6 would jeopardize infrastructure repairs.

RELATED: How San Diego Fueled California's Gas Tax Repeal Effort

"We want our roads fixed," DeMaio said in an interview after a campaign rally last week. "A yes vote on Prop 6 is the only way to really fix the roads because what we're saying to the politicians is, 'We know you're lying to us. We know that you already have enough money and we're not giving you a single penny more until you fix our roads with the existing money.'"

DeMaio argues the state legislature should focus more on controlling the cost of road repair, and that gas tax revenues are being used for expenses unrelated to transportation. How the state spends gas tax revenue is extremely complex, but it does include things like traffic law enforcement and administrative costs.

The "No on 6" campaign includes some strange bedfellows: both organized labor unions and the traditionally labor-skeptical California Chamber of Commerce and the California Associated General Contractors. Also opposing Prop 6 are environmental groups, public health organizations and police and firefighter unions.

DeMaio dismissed these groups as "Sacramento interests."

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"If you're a lobbyist or a politician, you love raising taxes," he said. "If you're a member of a working family, you realize the cost of living in California is too high and you don't want to throw good money after bad. That's the real difference between the two sides here."

Catherine Hill is a regional representative for the League of California Cities, which opposes Prop 6. She said the diversity of the groups opposing Prop 6 reflects a broad consensus that California needs more funding for transportation.

"All of those groups realize that in order for our state to move forward ... we're going to have to invest in our infrastructure," she said. "We're going to have to continue to make sure that our streets and roads are safe, that our bridges are safe, that the infrastructure can be there to move our goods."

Hill said if Prop 6 passes, the projects in San Diego County with new gas tax funding would suddenly be put on hold or canceled.

"There's no 'Plan B' the next day to keep those projects going," she said. "As we're trying to figure out how we meet these needs and keep the train running on time, then our infrastructure is going to continue to crumble."

Proposition 6, a measure to repeal last year's increase to the state gas tax, could be one of the most consequential issues on the November ballot. The measure could ease the direct cost of car ownership, but would also eliminate billions in new transportation funding.

Election 2020 news coverage


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Andrew Bowen
Metro Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.

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