San Jose lawmaker criticizes highway funds diverted to high-speed rail
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 207 into law this month. The bill allows for same-day voter registration in the state. (AP Photo)

    Gov. Gavin Newsom has received backlash from both sides of the political aisle after signing an executive order last month that diverts funds away from highway repairs into high-speed rail projects — a move that has some San Jose lawmakers shaking their heads.

    The funds — up to $5 billion generated annually — stem from Senate Bill 1, a 2017 law authored by San Jose state Sen. Jim Beall that increased gas taxes and vehicle fees across the state to fix roads, highways and invest in mass transit. The bill raised taxes by 12 cents on a gallon of gas and 20 cents on a gallon of diesel, while increasing vehicle and car registration fees up by $25 to $175.

    About 20 percent was set aside for high-speed rail and mass transit, but under the governor’s newly-signed executive order, $5 billion in discretionary transportation funds will now be put into a reserve for “priority rail projects.” State leaders are rapidly investing in mass transit and infrastructure in an effort to meet California’s climate goals in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and repeatedly stated the order would not “supersede existing state law” on SB 1.

    “Maintaining the condition of our highways, roads and bridges is of the utmost importance to the governor and this approach will continue. Having said that, we are legally required to meet climate goals,” said David S. Kim, the state’s secretary of transportation. “The transportation sector contributes more than 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Therefore, we must take the necessary steps to reduce the share of greenhouse gas emissions that come from the transportation sector.”

    While San Jose’s $17.5 million in SB 1 funds reserved for road repairs will not be affected, according to Colin Heyne, a spokesperson for the city’s transportation department, highway improvement projects on Highway 99 in Tulare and Madera counties and one on Highway 46 in Kern County were put on the backburner until further notice.

    The whopping $61 million allotted for those projects will now be used for mass transit, but state officials said the now-abandoned projects were early enough in the design stages, and will be eligible for future funding.

    But some local leaders are furious over the decision, arguing that the move will erode the public’s trust in government. Councilmember Johnny Khamis, much like other fiscally conservative lawmakers across the state, objected to the executive order. Despite the need for strong climate change initiatives, Khamis said government needs to keep its promises. 

    “He’s taking away $5 billion dollars from highway repair and I think it’s a shame. A lot of voters are not going to see their highways fixed, and they’re going to have less trust in government,” said Khamis. “As a government official, I think we have to live up to our promises and do what we say we’re going to do, otherwise no one will trust us with their tax dollars anymore.”

    Despite the massive highway repair projects being predominantly in the Central Valley, Khamis also expressed concern about Highway 99 — a vital artery that connects farmers from the state’s agricultural epicenter in delivering produce to San Jose.

    “They’re going to stop fixing Highway 99 — a major artery in San Jose — and will be eliminating several other projects,” Khamis added. “The city could lose millions in funds. We were depending on a lot of money for highway cleanups and repairs that we may not be getting now.”

    Taxpayers are already frustrated over the hiked up price of gas — well over $4 per gallon in most parts of California — far above the national average of about $2.50 per gallon. Khamis, an outspoken critic of raising taxes and fees, called the state leader’s decision to divert the funds “hypocritical,” considering Newsom campaigned against his Republican opponent John Cox last year on the premise to not support Prop. 6 — a ballot measure that would repeal SB 1. But cutting funds for projects that voters supported is just as bad as endorsing the repeal of SB 1, added Khamis.

    Still, many transit-friendly groups are supporting the governor’s decision. Despite aggravating his progressive alliances with the veto of SB 127 — a transportation funding bill set to give higher safety priorities to pedestrians and bicyclists on the road –Newsom won them back with the executive order as he promised to invest in transportation infrastructure instead of highways.

    “Nothing about the executive order is going against SB 1, but what it’s trying to do is figure out how we can better align those funds in transportation to align with our goals as a state,” said Esther Rivera, deputy director of statewide thinktank California Walks. “What it’s saying is let’s direct funds to where they’re needed to get people who can make the choice to maybe walk, bike or use transit, to have the option and those who can’t and wish to stay driving still can drive on well-maintained roads.”

    Rivera added that the executive order will be “really good for everyone,” as it will get more people connected to different modes of transportation through transit, walking, bicycling, and in effect reduce congestion on the region’s roadways. The climate goals the state wants to achieve are long-term benefits to the region, Rivera argued, despite the pushback that the newly-signed executive order is receiving.

    “The less congestion we’re going to see on our roadways, the easier people will be able to get to their destination no matter what type of method they choose to use, and in the Bay Area, this is a big deal,” added Rivera. “We’re not meeting our emission goals as a state and we’re not advancing to meet our climate goals. So I think the executive order is really helping to push us in a better direction with transportation.”

    Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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