Editorial: Time to get your motors runnin’

California’s roadways have been much neglected in the past three decades. The neglect is largely deliberate, stemming from the coercive notion that more traffic congestion will yield such frustration-induced enlightenment that motorists will cheerfully abandon their vehicles and board public transit.

Inevitably, ideology must bow to reality. Though many Californians, especially in the Bay Area, do indeed choose public systems, the state’s overwhelming population prefers the efficiency and liberty of the private motorcar. Not only do they prefer to grip their own steering wheels, but the state’s massive economy depends on their mobility.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature’s Democratic leaders have moved to honor what the state’s on-the-move citizens long have demanded: more and better roads as well as properly maintained public transit. They have placed two measures on next month’s ballot — Propositions 1A and 1B — that will direct long-needed attention to those demands.

In 2002, the voters approved Proposition 42, which dedicated revenues from sales taxes on gasoline and diesel away from the General Fund and to transportation needs. The proposition allowed a suspension of the allocation in times of a state emergency, a provision twice invoked, but it said nothing about whether the redirected funds would be restored to transportation.

Prop. 1A corrects that problem by requiring the suspensions to be treated as loans to be repaid, with interest, within three years’ time. It also limits such suspensions to twice over the course of 10 fiscal years, insisting that no new suspensions be called until previous suspensions are repaid. This sound management, clearly, respects the wishes of the voters, who we trust will seal their sentiment in law by saying yes to Prop. 1A.

In 1990, voting motorists told the politicians to stop neglecting them by authorizing a comparatively modest $5 billion for road projects. Most of that money has been spent, and we’ve arrived at time when demand for more and better roads has grown geometrically.

So Sacramento has asked those voters to authorize a bond issue of nearly $20 billion that not only would build and upgrade the state’s roads, but would also add capacity to public transit while performing seismic retrofits and taking overdue steps to secure the safety of our ports. It’s a tall order, but much needed.

California already faces colossal bonded indebtedness, so much so that a growing chorus of economists has warned against accumulating more. And yet, the state’s economy— the world’s sixth largest — absolutely needs upgraded transportation infrastructure in order to perform at current strength.

The Examiner doesn’t relish the prospect of even greater debt; indeed, we’re certain there are a few rat holes included in this package, especially in the public transit projects, which typically do not pay for themselves. But we do see the need to keep Californians moving, and voting yes on 1B offers the most direct route.

Part of The San Francisco Examiner's 2006 election coverage.

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