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Protecting Tuolumne County’s Roads and Bridges

There has been a lot of discussion recently in the State Legislature concerning potential changes in the way transportation funding is allocated from the state to local government. This guest blog is intended to provide some background information on this issue which might help readers to better understand how these changes will affect Tuolumne County’s Road Fund and our ability to provide road maintenance services to the residents of the unincorporated areas of the County.

Tuolumne County Public Works Department is responsible for managing 611 miles of roads and 54 bridges within the unincorporated area of Tuolumne County. This infrastructure, valued at more than $1 billion, represents one of the largest publicly owned assets within the County.

Much like your house and car, roads and bridges require regular ongoing maintenance, without which they will deteriorate and require costly repairs. Current transportation revenues to maintain our roads and bridges are not adequate to keep up with the ongoing maintenance needs of our road and bridges.

Where does the money used to pay for road maintenance on Tuolumne County roads and bridges come from?

Many residents may not be aware that the Tuolumne County Public Works Department does not receive any of the Property Tax paid by Tuolumne County residents. Property tax is mandated by law to be distributed to school districts, other local districts such as fire districts, community services districts etc. and the General Fund of both the City of Sonora and the County of Tuolumne.

The largest funding source for road maintenance for all roadways in the state has historically been the Highway User Tax. The Highway User Tax is a combined state tax of 18 cents per gallon and a federal tax of 18.4 cents per gallon on each gallon sold throughout the state.

In addition to the Highway User Tax each of us also pays 6% sales tax on the gasoline and diesel we purchase. Based on a price of $3.00 per gallon this sales tax works out to approximately 18 cents per gallon. When added to the state and federal Highway Users Tax the current total tax on a gallon of gas is very close to 54 cents per gallon sold.

How much of the 54 cents per gallon in taxes I pay comes back to Tuolumne County?

Of the state’s 18 cents per gallon of tax just over 3 cents per gallon is distributed directly to California counties by formula, with another 3 cents per gallon distributed by formula to California Cities. The amount each County or City receives is based on the number of registered vehicles in a particular city/county and also on the number of miles of road the city/county is responsible for maintaining. The remaining 12 cents per gallon of the 18 cents of state tax is kept by the state for the maintenance of state highways, and to pay for Caltrans administration and staffing costs.

The 18.4 cents per gallon in federal tax is used to fund the Federal Highway Administration. Some of the federal tax money is then made available to local communities in the form of grants. The Public Works Department often uses these federal grants to pay for the majority of our Capital Project costs. Recent examples would be the Phoenix Lake Bridge, the sidewalk and lighting improvements in Jamestown, and various safety improvements to O’Byrnes Ferry Road and Old Priest Grade.

The approximately 18 cents per gallon of sales tax revenue on gasoline and diesel is currently split 40% to the state, 20% to Counties, 20% to Cities and 20% to transit per the requirements of Proposition 42.

Also, per a law dating back to 1908 25 cents of every dollar generated by the federal government from the sale of timber, mining of precious metals, sale of grazing rights and revenues from recreation on federally owned land is returned to the County within which the revenue was generated. The 25 cents is then split evenly between County schools(12.5%) and County roads(12.5%). During the 1980’s this funding source provided as much as $2 million per year to both the County’s Road Maintenance budget and the Tuolumne County Superintendant of Schools. By the late 1990’s, due primarily to reduced timber production, the amount fell to a low of $175,000 per year.

In 2001 Congress passed a new law known as the Secure Rural Schools Act. For six years this bill fixed the amount at a little over $1,125,000 per year for both schools and roads. However, when the six year bill expired in 2007 Congress chose to phase out these payments over a four year period beginning in 2008 and to eliminate them altogether in 2012.

The sources of transportation revenue discussed above will generate a total of $3,959,172 for the Tuolumne County Road Fund in the current fiscal year. This total represents slightly more than half (53%) of our 2009/10 Road Fund budget. The remaining 47% comes from a variety of sources which include one-time federal grants, revenue from permit fees for use of county roadways, permit fees for over-weight and over-length trucks, charges for services provided to other government entities and private development projects and a whole list of other sources.

The total Tuolumne County Road Fund budget for fiscal year 2009/10 approved by the Board of Supervisors is $7,818,657. Looked at another way this represents approximately $142 for every man, woman and child that is a resident of Tuolumne County. Road Fund revenue is used to pay all of the costs of road maintenance, salary and benefits costs for our 56 full-time employees, liability insurance costs, utility costs, equipment purchase and maintenance costs and the cost of all materials that are needed to run the Public Works Department. So we constantly strive to stretch each of your $142 as far as we can possibly stretch it. How are we doing as concerns keeping up with inflation?

Over the past 20 years the per gallon cost of Highway Users Tax has been the same since Proposition 111 passed in 1989. However, the purchasing power represented by the Highway Users Tax has eroded steadily as the price of labor, equipment and materials has continued to climb. For comparison, since 1994 the Consumer Price Index for Northern California has risen 53 percent. The California Highway Construction Index, a similar measure of the cost of road construction, has risen a whopping 112 percent. Yet, in that same time Tuolumne County Highway User Tax Revenues we receive each year have increased by only 6 percent!!!

Because of rising costs and falling revenues, the Tuolumne County Public Works Department has had to reduce both our staffing levels and the amount of road maintenance we can provide to the community over the past several years. Currently, the department has just 56 total employees to manage and maintain our entire 611 miles of roadway. Of this total 38 employees are assigned to the Road Maintenance division where the actual road maintenance activities are performed. The remaining 18 employees are part of the Engineering, Land Use, Traffic and Administration divisions of the department.

Put another way, each of our 56 employees is responsible for approximately 11 miles of roadway. Contrast this with Caltrans which has approximately 22,000 employees and 15,000 centerline miles of roads (0.7 miles of roadway per employee) and you begin to see the reason state highways are generally in a much better state of repair than County roads.

How has the recent Economic Stimulus program and other state/federal programs improved the transportation funding situation for Tuolumne County?

Fortunately, the County has received a few one-time infusions of money in the past few years that have temporarily slowed the rate of decline in our road maintenance efforts. President Obama’s Economic Stimulus package will provide us $2.1 million in highway funding. This money is being used to completely rebuild La Grange Road(County Highway J-59). The Board of Supervisors awarded a contract to George Reed Inc. to construct the project. We hope to see construction begin in May of this year as soon as the weather is warm enough to proceed.

Also, the voters of California in November 2006 approved Proposition 1B, which will provide $4.1 million in transportation revenue to Tuolumne County over the life of that program. These funds are being used to pay for the cost of resurfacing many roads around the County. Recent examples include portions of Tuolumne Road, Soulsbyville Road, Parrott’s Ferry Road, Sawmill Flat Road, Campo Seco Road, Standard Road, and Old Priest Grade. The Board of Supervisors will be considering more roadways in the near future for the final $1.8 million allocation of Proposition 1B funds.

While Tuolumne County certainly appreciates these one-time infusions of funding they are nowhere near enough to fully address our local transportation needs. The use of these monies allows us to catch up on some of the backlog of deferred maintenance for our higher speed roadways throughout the County. However, many roadways that desperately need resurfacing will remain in poor shape once these short-lived funding programs end, particularly local roadways in neighborhoods.

Although highly beneficial in the short run, these temporary boosts only mask the ongoing structural and financial problems facing local government transportation funding in California. The situation will likely worsen as the state legislators continue to look for local revenues to help solve their seemingly endless budget problems. For example, the State has deferred payments of local Gas Taxes in each of the past two years, causing us to borrow with interest to fund our road maintenance program until the state repays the money. This borrowing strains both our budget and cash flow. There are also current discussions in the legislature to abolish the sales tax on fuel and replace it with increased Highway Users Tax. These type of legislative changes will directly affect the amount of revenue that the Tuolumne County Road Fund receives.

In closing, roads and bridges are essential to everyday life. In times of economic hardship, it might be easy for some to dismiss transportation infrastructure as a financial priority. However, our infrastructure is often dismissed, and without ongoing and stable revenues, our ability to maintain and sustain safe roadways and bridges is threatened.

The Tuolumne County Public Works Department is dedicated to maximizing the use of all of our available resources to protect these vital assets. However, what we really need is to receive a predictable and stable amount of funding consistently on a yearly basis. The deteriorating condition of our roads clearly shows us that this funding has not been made available to us in recent years. Unfortunately, an increase in reliable transportation funding for local agencies remains elusive at the state and federal level. Options for local revenue increases are extremely limited and unpopular with voters. Somehow this paradigm needs to shift so that Tuolumne County roads and bridges have a fighting chance to serve our next generation.

Peter Rei is the Public Works Director for Tuolumne County