Californians are paying high gas taxes for bad roads
Photo 41629811 © Greta Gabaglio |


Californians are paying high gas taxes for bad roads

California’s roads and bridges rank 47th out of 50 states overall in cost-effectiveness, safety, and condition.

California’s state fuel taxes are already the highest in the nation and, due to the state’s annual inflation adjustments, could rise another eight percent in July. California’s drivers can rightfully wonder if the gas taxes they are paying to build and maintain roads are being put to good use.

California’s roads and bridges rank 47th out of 50 states overall in cost-effectiveness, safety, and condition, the 27th Annual Highway Report by Reason Foundation finds. According to the report, only Alaska, Hawaii, and New York state get worse results from their transportation funding, which ranks each state in 13 road and spending categories.

Compared to neighboring states, California’s overall highway performance and cost-effectiveness are far worse. Nevada ranks 21st out of 50, Arizona ranks 30th, and Oregon is 37th overall. California is frequently measured against Texas. But when it comes to the cost-effectiveness and performance of their highways, Texas ranks 19th overall, well ahead of California’s 47th place ranking.

Costs in California are certainly higher than in most other parts of the country, including Texas. But high costs are not California’s only problem. The state ranks below the national average in 12 out of 13 highway categories. Poor pavement quality, heavy traffic congestion, and high road fatality rates are three areas that need immediate improvement.

With its higher fuel tax, California’s drivers should presumably get smoother roads and fewer potholes. Instead, California ranks last in the nation in urban arterial road pavement condition. Nearly 10% of California’s urban Interstate pavement is in poor condition, ranking 47th in the country. On urban Interstates, California has more than twice Texas’ percentage of poor pavement. For rural Interstate conditions, California ranks 46th in the nation and has 3.5 times the percentage of poor pavement as Texas.

California’s drivers also lose time and money stuck in gridlock. The state’s drivers wasted 31 hours in 2021 sitting in traffic congestion, ranking 44th in the nation. In recent years, the number of people working and shopping from home has helped alleviate some of the state’s congestion. However, if major employers continue to require workers to return to the office, California’s traffic numbers could worsen.

In other safety and performance categories, California ranks 25th in structurally deficient bridges, 39th in rural highway fatality rate, and 23rd in urban Interstate fatality rate. Those traffic fatality numbers are far too high for California. Given the large amount of money California collects in fuel taxes, these results are particularly disappointing.

Thankfully, California’s path to improving its highways and rankings is clear. The state should prioritize maintenance efforts on repairing potholes, smoothing rough roads, and upgrading pavement to help drivers and increase safety. Transportation officials should also identify and expedite the modernization and revamping of the state’s most essential structurally deficient bridges.

Orange County once innovated, creating the nation’s first variably priced toll lanes to deal with the region’s infamous traffic jams. As Southern California continues to add toll lanes, the long-term plan should be to create a network of variably priced toll lanes that connect all major highways. The network would offer drivers, buses, and emergency vehicles a region-wide congestion-free alternative to gridlocked freeways, helping drivers and businesses.

The state’s roads and highways are vital to trade and the economy and must be repaired and modernized. While construction and labor costs in California are undeniably higher than in most other states, California should be doing better than it is with its current gas prices. For the money they’re paying in gas taxes, California’s taxpayers deserve better and safer roads, smoother pavement, fewer deficient bridges, and less traffic congestion.

A version of this commentary originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.