Traffic backs up on the eastbound State Route 91 freeway near Corona in 2010. California’s heavy traffic, nearly a billion vehicular miles each day, has increased the need for maintenance on highways, and local roads and streets. Bruce Chambers Associated Press file
Traffic backs up on the eastbound State Route 91 freeway near Corona in 2010. California’s heavy traffic, nearly a billion vehicular miles each day, has increased the need for maintenance on highways, and local roads and streets. Bruce Chambers Associated Press file

Dan Walters

Observations on California and its politics

Dan Walters

Transportation, housing crises get short shrift in Legislature

By Dan Walters

dwalters@sacbee.com

September 22, 2016 07:00 PM

There are few things more fundamentally important to life in contemporary California than transportation and housing, and both are in crisis.

Our once-vaunted highway and roadway system is literally crumbling as Californians rack up nearly a billion miles of vehicular travel each day.

Meanwhile, vital maintenance projects are stalled, some for decades, due to a lack of money even though Californians are paying the nation’s highest user fees and taxes.

California overbuilt housing during an insane bubble, but when it burst, construction ground to a near-halt.

However, the state’s population continued to grow by about 300,000 people a year, and although construction has increased in recent years, it still falls short of demand, pushing costs sharply upward. Those costs are the major factor in California’s having the nation’s highest poverty rate.

Given those harsh realities, one would think that Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators certainly would’ve made the transportation and housing crises their highest priorities for the 2014-16 legislative session.

Oh, they did talk about them – a lot. But when the session adjourned on Aug. 31, they had done virtually nothing.

Brown’s very modest – woefully inadequate, in fact – plan to shore up roadway maintenance went nowhere.

Its tax increase element would require a two-thirds legislative vote, and weeks of negotiations aimed at securing support from at least a few Republican legislators stalled. Brown’s pledge to kick in some funds from cap-and-trade auctions of carbon emission allowances faded as recent auctions generated almost nothing.

This month, a seemingly influential coalition of business and labor groups and local governments pleaded with Brown and legislative leaders to quickly reconvene the special session on transportation.

“While there are some leaders willing to talk about the crisis and even offer solutions, consensus has been stymied by differences of opinion and no real engagement among the principal parties,” the coalition’s letter said.

Dynamics of the housing failure are similar.

Brown had offered a modest plan to fast-track some kinds of housing that face red tape in local governments due to pressure from existing residents, environmental groups and some labor unions.

However, the latter two groups are very influential with Democratic legislators and don’t want to cede power over housing projects. Eventually, late in the session, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon declared Brown’s proposal dead.

Brown had held back $400 million in low-cost housing funds, making the funds contingent on a fast-track deal. After Rendon’s declaration, housing advocates called on Brown to release the funds anyway, but so far he hasn’t done it.

The Legislature reconvenes in December, and it’s possible that Democrats will regain the two-thirds “supermajorities” they had lost in 2014. But the twin crises are not really partisan issues. Rather, they underscore the inherent difficulty of making policy in a large and complex state with countless, often adversarial, “stakeholders.”