Road System Collapse
by Daniel Mintz, January 14, 2010
A study by a statewide group of public works officials ventures a startling prediction — California’s local street and road system will collapse if funding to improve its condition isn’t significantly increased.
At the Jan. 5 Board of Supervisors meeting, Humboldt County Public Works Director Tom Mattson said the study found that a $71 billion investment needs be made to California’s local roads over the next ten years to return them to good condition.
Mattson chairs the statewide County Engineers Association, which gathered data for the study and released it. Its main finding is that the road systems of counties and cities are dangerously approaching the brink of collapse.
The average Pavement Condition Index (PCI) of the state’s locally-owned roads is 68, which is a few points above the “at risk” level of 61. Showing supervisors a powerpoint photo of a road rated at 68 PCI, Mattson said that it “doesn’t look bad — I wish our roads looked like that,” but he added that “what you’re looking at is the edge of a cliff and statewide, we’re about to go off it financially.”
A graph of a downhill curve representing road deterioration showed that 68 PCI is approaching a sharp, steep drop. “We’re at that slow curve point in the state of California and the cliff is coming fast and if we don’t repair our infrastructure, the cost to bring it back is going to be just astronomical,” said Mattson.
The county’s PCI is at 45, which means its roads have fallen to poor condition. As of 2000, there was a $100 million-plus road maintenance backlog and Mattson said the county needs an additional $9 million a year in funding.
But these are times of budget cuts and reduced revenue and the state deferred payment of the county’s share of gas tax money until this April. “And with the state as far in the hole as it is, I think that ‘defer’ is going to come to, ‘defer ‘til we can pay you back sometime in the future,’” Mattson said.
A second stream of tax revenue for roads, a highway users tax fund, has only been partially paid. “If the state holds onto that money too long, we’re going to start laying off people and the roads are going to start getting worse at a faster rate than they have been,” said Mattson.
He offered a glimpse into the future. “What happens if we don’t get more funding statewide?” he asked. The answer: “By the year 2033, the rest of the state will have roads like Humboldt County’s roads but ours will be much worse than that and if we continue to do what we’re doing, the entire local road system in the state of California will collapse.”
Mattson added that a $37 billion statewide deferred road maintenance backlog will increase to close to $80 billion by then.
It’s getting increasingly expensive to fix roads. Since the gas tax was put in place in 1998, the cost of asphalt has risen by 75 percent, Mattson told supervisors.
A ten-year, $71 billion investment in road repair would equate to a 38-cents a gallon increase in the gas tax, he said. A local survey showed that a sales tax measure for local funding would fail at the ballot box and Supervisor Jimmy Smith said the state’s use of voter-approved tax money for budget-balancing has probably tainted the odds of gaining approval for new taxes.
“To have the voters of those counties and cities … assume a new liability and a new tax increment to pay for what they already have obligated themselves for is going to be a very difficult task,” Smith continued.
Supervisors were asked to approve a resolution accepting the study’s findings, something local governments across the state are doing. But the resolution will be brought back for approval at this week’s meeting with added emphasis on getting the state to stop using tax revenue for alternative purposes.