The 170 Freeway through the San Fernando Valley. (David Crane – staff photographer)

By Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Posted: 02/23/15, 7:22 PM PST |

In the past, states could rely on the federal gasoline tax fund to build freeway and expressway projects and also for general upkeep of America’s ribbon of highways.

But those days are gone.

The federal gasoline tax, stuck at 18.4 cents per gallons for more than 20 years, is being overtaken by increased demand for new roads and repairs on the existing ones. The fund is also quickly dwindling as less revenue is generated by the current generation of fuel-efficient cars and electric cars.

As a result, the amount of money available to states from the Federal Highway Trust Fund for highway construction has declined 3.5 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press. Highway Trust Fund (HTF) spending dropped in 48 states, with Alaska and New York the exceptions. In California, per capita spending from the HTF fell during that five-year period by 10.9 percent, figures show.

A combination of smaller cars and more cars on the road with gasoline-battery hybrid technology, plus fewer people driving during the recent Great Recession, has kept federal gasoline tax revenues stagnant since 2007, figures show. In fact, the HTF actually has declined when adjusted for inflation, economists say, at a time when America’s highway infrastructure is aging and desperately needs repair.

“The method that we use to fund transportation — the primary method, the motor fuels tax — is a model that doesn’t work anymore,” said David Ellis, top infrastructure analyst at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

In short, states and cities can no longer count on the gas tax funds to pay for highway projects. As a result, many states, counties and cities have upped sales tax, borrowed billions by selling general obligation bonds and raided state coffers to pay what the federal HTF used to fund in order to keep people and goods moving. Washington, Oregon and soon, California, are experimenting with new ways to raise money for road repairs.

“The decline in the trust fund is not news. It has been going broke and is in much need of a fix but it needs a permanent, long-term fix, not a patch job,” said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Association of Governments, referring to an $11-billion stop-gap bill passed by Congress last summer that will expire in May.

Without enough gas-tax money for filling potholes or strengthening old freeway bridges, California turned to its own residents and held out the hat.

In November 2006, voters in California approved $19.9 billion in transportation funding as part of Proposition 1B. That was just the beginning. Five Southern California counties have passed a local transportation sales tax measure. In 2008 in Los Angeles County, voters approved a $40 billion fund for 30 years by increasing the sales tax by a half-cent. Most of Measure R is going to fund new rail projects aimed at eliminating cars from freeways and roadways, including the extension of the Purple Line subway under Wilshire Boulevard from mid-city to Westwood; the extension of the Expo Line Phase 2 from Culver City to Santa Monica; the extension of the foothills Metro Gold Line from east Pasadena to Azusa/Glendora; a future Gold Line east-side extension from East Los Angeles to South El Monte and Whittier; and the Crenshaw/LAX line.

The funding picture turnaround is startling, local officials said.

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