George Boardman: Funding for Highway 49?: We’re on the menu instead of at the table
April 16, 2017
There was a golden opportunity in Sacramento two weeks ago to accelerate the funding needed to make Highway 49 safer, but as is usually the case, nobody representing Nevada County's interests was at the table when the goodies were being handed out.
The opportunity came during the wheeling and dealing required to get the super majority needed by the Democrats to pass Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to raise $52 billion over the next ten years to repair our crumbling transportation infrastructure.
That should be music the ears of local residents concerned about safety on the stretch of Highway 49 from Grass Valley to Auburn. Their concern has attracted the notice of Caltrans and other officials, who insist they hear us loud and clear.
Now all they have to do is find the money to make the road safer, estimated at $100 million to $200 million. (That may be low when you consider it cost almost $30 million to put in a stoplight at La Barr Meadows Road and widen 49 to four lanes.) Ray Zhang, acting district 3 director of Caltrans, wrote in The Union that "Money we will be using for safety improvements to Highway 49 will be competing with all of the other investments we need to keep our transportation safe and in a state of good repair."
Zhang wrote those words before Brown's plan was announced, but that doesn't mean it will be any easier to make Highway 49 a high priority at Caltrans. Enabling legislation requires that $30 billion of the new money go to "fix-it-first" local roads and potholes. We'll have to get in line with everybody else except Riverside County and little old Ceres and Merced.
Why are Riverside County, Ceres and Merced exceptions? That's where the wheeling and dealing comes in.
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Brown's proposal passed by a 27-11 vote in the state Senate and 54-26 in the Assembly, the bare minimum required in each house to get a super majority. While in theory Democrats have that super majority, there were a couple of defections and some fence sitters who required extra attention from the leadership.
Assemblyman Rudy Salas was the lone Democrat to vote "no" in the Assembly and Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes was on the fence—if she defected, the measure would fail. She was persuaded to get off the fence with the promise of $427 million to repair and improve Riverside County's roads and train infrastructure.
The situation was even worse in the Senate, where a Marin County Democrat declared he would oppose the measure. That meant the leadership needed a Republican vote to get the super majority.
Up stepped Senator Anthony Cannela (Fresno), who backed the measure in exchange for a $500 million commitment to extend the Altamont Corridor Express train to Ceres and Merced. (Some wags are suggesting the train's initials, ACE, now stand for the "Anthony Cannela Express.")
Cannela worked out the deal during a late-night meeting with Brown and the Democratic leaders of both houses, and was unapologetic afterwards. "At the end of the day, they delivered," he told The Sacramento Bee. "I can't negotiate if I'm not willing to vote for it. I got the things that were important to me."
So where were our two elected Republican representatives, Sen. Ted Gaines and Assemblyman Brian Dahle, while all of this was going on? Let's just say they made no effort to get to the bargaining table.
Gaines issued a press release before the ink on SB 1 was dry denouncing the measure. "We already have some of the highest gas taxes and worst roads in the country," he said. "California diverts a billion dollars in weight fees away from transportation infrastructure every single year. Let's put the money back into road building before shaking down commuters and businesses even more."
Dahle sounded Bernie Sanders-like when the bill was being debated in the Assembly, accusing Tesla-driving liberals of sticking it to the poor working man. He pointed out that drivers of the $70,000 to $100,000 electric cars (Dahle apparently hasn't heard about the new economy model) will pay none of the new gas taxes to use the improved roads. "Middle class people pay for the burdens of rich people," he said. "Where's the social justice in that?"
Assembly Republican leader Chad Mayes said some of the supporters of the measure were "bought off. When was the last time any member of the Legislature got $10 million, let alone $427 million for one group of legislators and $500 million for another group of legislators?" he said.
This is an example of the ongoing debate about whether elected officials should stick to their principles or act in the best interest of their constituents. If you think the Republicans have seized the high moral ground here, wait until the deal making starts in Washington over tax reform and Trump's first budget. As has been observed many times, legislation is like sausage: You don't want to watch either being made.
Meanwhile, Nevada County is left in its usual position, begging for funds. Given our lack of effective representation in Sacramento, I expect it will take about as long to improve safety along Highway 49 as it did to get the Dorsey interchange built.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union.