Have you ever taken a multiple-choice test in which you disliked all the answers? Here's one to start your day:

How would you like to pay for future upkeep of the state's transportation system? (1) higher auto registration fees; (2) higher auto licenses fee; (3) higher gas taxes; (4) a taxpayer-funded transportation bond.

If you chose none of the above, tighten your seat belt and get ready for a rough ride -- neglected potholes, aging buses, crumbling roadways and dilapidated bridges. We are about to fall off what state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, describes as "the fiscal cliff in California transportation funding."

This didn't sneak up on us. It's been overshadowed by bigger needs; things like education funding, social services and hard-to-balance budgets.

Essential capital transportation projects have been possible the past six years largely because of the infusion of $20 billion from the Proposition 1B transportation bond passed in 2006. But that money is nearly gone.

As DeSaulnier, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, looks at the next fiscal year, here's what he sees: "We're 300 percent underfunded on the operations of streets and roads."

According to former Caltrans Director Will Kempton, who now heads the nonprofit California Transportation Advocacy Coalition, the State Highway Operation and Protection Program that oversees 15,000 miles of roadway requires about $8 billion a year to do its job, but it's budgeted to receive one-quarter of that.


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"The backlog of distressed roadways, bad pavements and problem areas is increasing," he said. "The same is true in transit -- look at BART, with all those tired, old vehicles that need to be replaced."

Identifying concerns is easier than finding solutions. As recently as 2011, a California Transportation Commission report found 58 percent of the state's roadways and 20 percent of its bridges required repair or maintenance. Surface streets maintained by local agencies are in addition to that.

Part of the funding problem dates to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who swept into office in 2003 and strong-armed legislators into slashing vehicle license fees. When those were trimmed from 2 percent of vehicle value to 0.065 percent, billions of dollars in annual transportation funding vanished. State fuel taxes, unchanged since 1994, don't begin to fill the void. In fact, per-capita fuel consumption has trended down with the advent of hybrid cars.

"The whole system is in jeopardy," Kempton said. "One of our challenges is to alert people to this problem. They may see highway construction now, but that's the tail end of the bonds and (federal stimulus) funding. That money's running out."

It won't be easy to find new revenue. Fees and taxes are never popular, and the public perception of some transportation agencies makes taxpayers hesitant to open their wallets. The BART labor dispute hasn't helped.

"The timing of that, along with the Bay Bridge problems, could not be worse," DeSaulnier said.

Public confidence was on his and Kempton's minds when they recently visited Washington state to learn how its performance management system ensures accountability and transparency.

"We need to do a better job of delivering the work that voters fund," Kempton said.

Oh yeah, the funding question. Want to hear your choices again?

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.