Vehicle Fee, Voter Approval In Transportation Fix Mulled In Sacramento

Traffic rolls along Interstate 5 just west of the Merced County town of Gustine. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

With only a few days left before legislators go home for 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown is throwing his weight behind a transportation funding plan that includes an annual $65 per vehicle fee and a statewide vote in 2016.

The outline of a plan obtained by KQED News calls for an annual $3.6 billion package of fixes for California's roads, highways and public transit. The money would be equally divided between state and local projects, and the funding structure would be protected by an amendment to the California Constitution. That would require voter approval on next year's ballot.

"We've been working hard with all of the legislative leaders and this reflects an attempt to bridge the differences," said Brian Kelly, the governor's transportation secretary.

Whether the proposal, the product of weeks of negotiations at the state Capitol, can pass legislative muster remains an open question. Both the revenue portions of the proposal -- which include an increase in the diesel fuel excise tax and a new highway user fee -- and the constitutional amendment would require a supermajority vote in each house. Republicans, for now, seem opposed to the idea of new vehicle fees and fuel taxes.

"Californians should not be looked to for a bailout," said Amanda Fulkerson, a spokeswoman for the Assembly Republican Caucus.

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Among the highlights of the plan, as outlined in the draft document making its way around the statehouse:

  • $3.6 billion in annual transportation funding (state and local combined), with $879 million in repayment of existing transportation loans
  • $500 million of the expenses would be paid from currently unallocated cap-and-trade revenues (money collected from the state auctions of greenhouse gas pollution credits)
  • A $65 per vehicle annual highway user fee, including hybrid and electric vehicles
  • A new inflation indexing of the gas and diesel excise tax, thus allowing for growth in gas tax revenues in years to come
  • $400 million a year in grants for public transit, with half of the money earmarked for disadvantaged communities

The late appearance of a detailed plan comes weeks after Brown called a special legislative session to address the long-term underfunding of roads and highways. It also comes after a testy week of exchanges between state highway officials and legislative Republicans. GOP legislators want to fund the backlog of transportation needs out of existing revenues, not new fees and taxes.