Fix the transportation system before considering bullet train

The California Transportation Commission’s latest snapshot of transportation services and needs — state and local, public and private — is a dense document that paints an ominous picture of decline.

The CTC’s bottom line: What we have is falling apart from heavy use and much-neglected maintenance, and as population and travel demand increase, we must add more capacity to handle both human and goods movement or face increasing gridlock and economic decay.

Bullet-train cheerleaders claim that building it will negate the need to spend $170 billion on highway and airport expansion. The CTC report says that even if we have a bullet train, we need to spend three times that much over the next 10 years on transportation but can count on less than half from current revenue and capital sources, leaving a net gap that approaches $300 billion.

“California must meet the challenge of its decaying infrastructure with a large increase in capital investments by all levels of government, as well as resources from the private sector,” according to the CTC’s report to the governor and the Legislature.

“Failing to adequately invest in the restoration will lead to further decay and a deterioration of service from which it may take many years to recover. Allowing this to happen would obviously make California a less attractive destination. The future of the state’s economy and our quality of life depend on a transportation system that is safe and reliable, and which moves people and goods efficiently.”

This is serious stuff, and it should top the political agenda. And it isn’t any secret, since state and local officials have been warning for years that the state’s once-vaunted transportation infrastructure is deteriorating. We have the nation’s most congested roadways and, according to the Federal Highway Administration, the nation’s second-worst pavement conditions.

Over the last three decades, the state’s population has increased by slightly over 50 percent, but vehicular travel — much of it pavement-crushing trucks — has doubled.

The warnings have been largely ignored because maintenance and rehabilitation don’t have the sex appeal of high-profile projects at which politicians can cut ribbons and pose for the cameras, and because fixing transportation would probably mean tax increases, such as a boost in the long-stagnant gas tax.

Before we spend billions on a 200 mph bullet train, however, it is important to ensure that the highways, streets and other facilities upon which we depend for basic transportation each day are adequately maintained and enhanced.

 

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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