I know that swearing is a bad thing. But when I hit a pothole and my green Camry shutters in the shock, I grip the wheel even tighter and listen for the telltale hissing sound of a flat tire. At that point, my stoic demeanor momentarily fades and I blurt out a few choice words that I probably learned in Kindergarten or the Navy. If the heavens have spared me this time the hassle of pulling over to the side of the road, getting the jack out of the trunk, and fixing the flat tire, I immediately regret my earlier lapse in word choice and start to think about wy any of our roads are in bad condition and what we can do to create a more cost efficient and environmentally-friendly transportation system.

The jalopy I drove in college is in better shape than many of our roads and highways. According to the December 2001 report “The High Cost of Bad Roads,” by the consulting firm Transportation California, our state has dropped from third-worst to worst in the country in the percentage of major locally and state-mandated road miles in need of repair or improvement. More than 37% of California’s major local and state road miles are rated in poor condition and 6840 bridges and overpasses are classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Each of California’s 21 million licensed drivers is estimated to pay an average of $558 in extra vehicle operating costs annually as a result of driving on roads in poor, mediocre, or fair condition.

It’s not hard to figure out why we are in this situation. We are becoming increasingly reliant on our highways for both short and long trips, as well as commercial use. At the same time, we have not made adequate investments to maintain our highways, nor have we sufficiently integrated forward-looking land use planning with mass transit alternatives. While the vehicle miles of travel in California jumped 97% during 1980-2000, our state ranks last in the country in state highway capital investment by spending only $87 per resident. Many are rightly concerned about what has become an all too frequently deadly mix of commercial trucking and passenger cars on our clogged roads. In spite of these growing problems on our roads, we are not making enough progress in providing Californians and commercial operators with mass transit alternatives.

According to a survey conducted for the federal Department of Transportation, for trips longer than 100 miles in our state, 86% were in cars or trucks, 12% by air, and only 2% by bus or rail. It’s no small wonder why six California urban regions – Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento, and San Bernardino-Riverside – rank in the top 20 nationally in traffic congestion.

On March 5, voters will have an opportunity to take a step forward. Proposition 42 would permanently dedicate the revenues from the sales tax on gasoline to state and local agencies for transportation purposes. Right now, the sales tax on gasoline disappears into the state’s General Fund and is appropriated by the California Legislature for a variety of non-transportation purposes. Proposition 42, based on the “pay-as-you-go” principle, would guarantee that approximately $1.4 Proposition 42 give us much guidance on how we can create an efficient transportation system while maintaining our country’s rural character. That’s up to us. We need our congressman, state legislators, county supervisors, city council members, and other dedicated citizens to first develop a vision of how we want our community to look in twenty years, then develop a consensus on additional transportation funding sources, and implement forward-looking land use policies. The time for more collaborative approach is now. There is no time to waste. As Samuel Johnson, the 18th Century English literary critic, once said, “the future is purchased by the present.”

February 21, 2002

Postscript: Proposition 42 was passed by the voters but suspended over the next several years to help balance the perennially unbalanced state budget.   As part of the 2005-06 budget deal, the full provisions of Proposition 42 will be permitted to go into effect. Proposition 1A was enacted by the voters in November 2006 to make it much less likely that the Legislature could steal the Proposition 42 funds to balance the state’s General Fund.