At a 2017 Riverside rally touting legislation to increase gas taxes and vehicle-license fees to boost California's infrastructure spending, then-Gov. Jerry Brown was characteristically grandiose.
"Roads are the fundamentals of a civilization," he said. "Whether it was the Roman Empire or the United States of America, roads are the key to a nation's greatness."
As someone who once spent hours driving 50 miles on a decrepit and insanely crowded third-world country's "highways," I can attest to the societal importance of a modern, well-maintained freeway system. But the latest news about that gas-tax hike—and the way some cities are using the cash—speaks volumes about our civilization, too. It's great fodder for an author who wants to chronicle the decline and fall of it.
Senate Bill 1's supporters made clear the $5.4 billion a year in additional infrastructure spending would reduce congestion and make getting around much easier. Any normal person would think that meant building new street and highway lanes. This isn't high-level math: Congestion is caused by too little road space for too many cars, so adding space is the key.
Normal people apparently don't make transportation decisions. "Two years after state lawmakers boosted the gas tax with a promise to improve California streets, some cities have raised the ire of drivers by spending millions of the new dollars on 'road diet' projects that reduce the number and size of lanes for motor vehicles," according to a Los Angeles Times report.
In November, a majority of California voters opposed a repeal of those gas-tax hikes. People no doubt reasoned that even if they don't like paying so much extra at the pump, they at least will see tangible improvements in their commutes. In fairness, the tax hike has funded many construction and maintenance projects, but it's also funded these projects that seem designed to make our awful commutes even worse. It makes no sense.
S.B. 1 is a "landmark transportation investment to rebuild California by fixing neighborhood streets, freeways and bridges in communities across California and targeting funds toward transit and congested trade and commute corridor improvements," according to the state of California website. That's a fair description of how its backers described the controversial plan to skeptical taxpayers.
When did anyone ever say anything about "road diets"?
Actually, the law's fine print promised to add bike lanes and improve road safety. Not many people figured that California cities would do this by building wider, protected bicycle routes and removing the number of traffic lanes in the process. In the city of Sacramento, near where I live, officials have used this strategy. It has turned downtown thoroughfares from a crowded rush-hour mess into total, gridlocked chaos. As humorist Dave Barry would say, "I am not making this up."
The city realized "the primary collision factor on the streets was unsafe speeds," Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said in that news report. "And one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to reduce the speeds is to reduce the number of travel lanes." The report pointed to a federal study showing that road diets significantly reduce the number of car accidents. Well, sure—it's harder to get in an accident when you're not moving or crawling along. The next time you're in gridlock, remember that officials did this to make you safer. Gee, thanks a lot.
This is planned congestion—an extreme case of social engineering trumping traffic engineering. These officials, who want us to sit in traffic longer as a means to avoid accidents or frustrate us into taking the bus or rail, are using the recent tax boost to achieve these goals. Californians have been had, although many of us had issued warnings.
Officials actually admit that they do this. It was obvious, though, given increases in traffic and all those new, obtrusive bicycle lanes surrounded by pylons and delineated by white, painted warning figures and lines on the asphalt. These projects also are designed to promote "equity" by "giving people safe alternatives to cars," as one supporter told the Times. Bicycling is a fine-enough pastime and a reasonable way to get around in cities, but replacing traffic lanes with bike lanes will only make the traffic worse.
When San Jose opened a light-rail station many years ago, transportation officials reportedly considered closing a nearby highway lane to encourage people to take rail. These road-diets are even loopier. We've placed transportation planning in the hands of the Congestion Lobby – officials who are so hostile to car usage that they'll go to great lengths to coerce us to ride bikes or take their slow, dirty and generally unpleasant transit systems.
Jerry Brown had it right. Roads are indeed a key to a society's greatness. But I'd add that any civilization that raises gas taxes and then reduces road lanes to purposefully increase traffic congestion is insane and probably living on borrowed time.
This column was first published by the Orange County Register.