10:00 PM PDT on Monday, September 5, 2011

BY DUG BEGLEY
STAFF WRITER
dbegley@pe.com

Sacramento lawmakers have a plan to raise money to improve freeways and bolster public transit and bicycle amenities: Let local officials charge more for gas.

But Inland area officials don’t think Riverside or San Bernardino counties will take lawmakers up on the offer.

A bill in the state Assembly, if approved, would allow planning agencies such as San Bernardino Associated Governments and the Riverside County Transportation Commission to ask voters to approve a gas levy. The charge, placed on each gallon of gasoline purchased in the county, would pay for road maintenance, increased transit offerings and upgrades to bicycle and pedestrian routes and amenities.

Supporters said the ongoing transportation discussion needs to shift to giving people more options, which in turn can ease traffic jams.

“The best way to get real congestion reduction is to emphasize these other options,” said Graham Brownstein, state policy director for TransForm, a public policy group pushing for more transit and bicycle routes. “With this, we have a way for communities to fund needed improvements both for transit and for road maintenance. The backlog on road maintenance is staggering.”

The bill, amended late last week to include the gas levy provision, must move quickly through Sacramento if it is to become law anytime soon. The current legislative session ends in one week.

“We think that it is urgent that it passes this year so communities can take it to the voters,” said Rebecca Saltzman with the California League of Conservation Voters , one of the agencies supporting Steinberg’s bill.

Proponents of the bill believe it would be a valuable tool in reducing traffic congestion by giving counties the chance to encourage more cycling and bus riding, but also keep roads in better shape.

The proposal follows previous moves to allow counties and local communities more control in funding their own improvements, said Alicia Trost, spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who sponsored the legislation.

“It goes along with some of the goals to giving communities more control and more options to meet some of the challenges,” Trost said.

NO VOTE NEEDED

The proposal avoids a two-thirds vote by voters and the Legislature, according to the bill, because the levy would be based on the cost of making specified repairs. As such, it is not covered by Prop. 26, which voters passed last year to require a two-thirds vote for any tax or non-specified fee.

The gas levy bill also requires owners of electric vehicles to pay an additional registration fee to the DMV, to offset the costs of road repairs. Because the vehicles use the roads but do not pay fuel taxes — the main source of highway funding — the DMV registration fee is a substitute, according to Steinberg’s bill.

The bill does not set specific standards or amounts for the gas levy, leaving that up to local officials.

“A very small levy on fuel purchases, just a few pennies, will get lost in the volatility of gas prices,” he said.

Some communities probably would focus on transit operations, while others could heavily invest in road maintenance, supporters said.

“Every locality is different, but now is the time for this bill because our transportation system is falling apart,” Saltzman said. “Each community is going to have to determine where the funding goes.”

Local officials will have authority to raise the money they need, within strict controls set by the bill.

“There is no way a region is going to go to the voters with an amount that is going to freak people out,” Brownstein said.

Existing funding

Inland lawmakers don’t think the idea has much support in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

“I don’t personally know of a lot of officials clamoring to pass another gas fee onto people,” said Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, vice chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee.

Instead, Jeffries said local officials are focused on bringing jobs to the area so residents do not commute by the thousands to Orange County or Los Angeles County.

“Our challenge isn’t so much how many more freeways can we build, but how many more businesses can we bring in,” Jeffries said.

Counties already can approve sales taxes specifically for transportation improvements. Riverside and San Bernardino counties both have half-cent sales taxes dedicated to widening freeways, improving local streets and building transit systems.

Inland officials said while more road funding is needed, it will be tough to persuade voters to approve a plan to raise gas prices to fund bus and bicycle improvements.

“I think there are a lot of questions about this legislation because it is so heavily weighted to public transit and road repair,” said John Standiford, deputy director of the Riverside County Transportation Commission.

Funding for any transportation improvements is scarce, many said, and adding more fees that can’t be used for expanding roads won’t help many Inland congestion problems.

“When our (transportation) system is starving, and I don’t think that is an exaggeration, it is a misallocation of resources,” said Gene Erbin, a Sacramento-based lobbyist and lawyer who has auto-industry and oil company clients.

Many voters will support plans to increase public transit and pedestrian amenities, Erbin said, but not at the expense of building freeways to ease congestion.

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