California’s Transportation Bond Won’t Build Roads

Prop. 1B phony fix for L.A. road needs

When it comes to transportation, Angelenos have plenty to gripe about: the nation’s worst traffic congestion, and – with 6 million more people expected to arrive by 2030 – the expectation that those jams will get even worse.

Enter the phony fix of Proposition 1B, the $19.9 billion transportation bond.

A recent Reason Foundation study revealed that it would take $68 billion in roadway-capacity expansion for Los Angeles to vanquish severe congestion by 2030. Next to that figure Proposition 1B’s promise of $19.9 billion seems small.

But isn’t something better than nothing? Not in this case.

Proposition 1B’s “something” is more expensive than it first seems. Because so much money would be spent on debt payments, 1B would cost nearly $2 for every dollar spent.

Taxpayers would get a $38 billion bill, but receive only $19.9 billion worth of product.

And what would they have to show for it? The real-world impact of 1B would probably be close to nothing. Nearly half of the money goes toward projects that have nothing to do with fighting gridlock, and only $11 billion is tabbed for what can loosely be defined as congestion relief.

Of that, $1 billion is earmarked for State Route 99 in the Central Valley, and the remaining funds will be spread across the state. When the dust settles, no one knows how much L.A. will get.

Large sums of Proposition 1B money would go toward simply keeping our current transportation system running. Decades from now taxpayers will still be paying for 1B, while puzzled Angelenos look around for all the new infrastructure they thought they’d bought.

Bonding would also take us farther away from a much better “something.” If Proposition 1B passes, complacency will follow. Gridlock-weary drivers will be temporarily pacified. Lawmakers will congratulate themselves for showing leadership. And momentum for the real reform California needs will fizzle, because these bonds certainly don’t encourage lawmakers to be fiscally responsible.

Over the past three years, state spending has shot up 29 percent. If voters bail Sacramento out by giving our politicians credit cards for essentials like transportation, lawmakers can safely devote more of the general fund budget to their pet projects.

If bonds weren’t an option, state leaders might have asked the private sector for help. After all, $25 billion in private sector transportation is currently flowing into other states. In fact, the kind of funding California could attract would probably dwarf what other states are getting.

Earlier this year former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta noted, “Every private-sector investment group that we talk to says that California – and Southern California in particular – is the most attractive (road) investment opportunity in America, if not the world.”

But if Proposition 1B passes, legislators will ease back into their business-as-usual habits. And when congestion grows more unbearable, they’ll cobble together another bond, and ask voters to give the state’s credit card another swipe. Criticize their new bond and lawmakers will have a familiar response at the ready: “Something is better than nothing.”

Ted Balaker is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a free market think tank based in Los Angeles, and co-author of “The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, And What We Can Do About It.” An archive of his work is here. Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here and the California-specific research and commentary is here.