Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

Following the Board of Supervisors’ 4-1 vote to support repeal of SB1 (gas tax) some are questioning what effect that would have when it comes to citing and building a new highway around Last Chance Grade.

The Aug. 28 vote supported Proposition 6, which asks voters to overturn Senate Bill 1 (also called The Road Repair and Accountability Act). SB1 increased the price of gasoline and diesel fuel by 12 and 20 cents, respectively.

In a phone interview Monday morning. Sen. Mike McGuire said the passage of Proposition 6 would thwart any progress made on Last Chance Grade.

“For decades, Last Chance Grade has been at the top of the county’s priority list,” McGuire said, “and for decades, the state has not been active and engaged on moving a long term solution forward.”

McGuire said great strides have been made on the project in recent years, including $5 million on secured revenue to advance a geotechnical study and another $5 million to launch environmental studies to look at the impacts of each of the proposed alternative routes over the pass.

“In addition, Del Norte County is receiving approximately $1.3 million in new road safety improvement funding from the gas tax (SB1),” McGuire said. “Del Norte County has never had this amount of money for road repairs in recent history, and it’s due to the gas tax.”

McGuire said Crescent City will see approximately $150,000 to $175,000 in additional gas tax revenue to improve its crumbling streets.

Noting that “no one likes taxes,” McGuire said the state has not raised the gasoline tax since 1994, and Proposition 69 (the lock box initiative) overwhelmingly passed in June 2017, to put gas tax revenue into a locked fund to ensure they are invested in road safety improvement projects indefinitely.

McGuire said he and others were frustrated at the time that the legislature and governor had diverted gas tax dollars into non-road projects

“Now that the voters have advanced Proposition 69, that will no longer happen,” he said. “One of the largest benefactors of the gas tax increase will be Del Norte County. The only way we are going to be able to complete Last Chance Grade is via the new gas tax fund.”

McGuire said with SB1 in place, Last Chance Grade will be subsidized by the more urban areas of the state.

“There is no way, based off of the revenue that is generated in Del Norte County, that the county could build an inland route of Last Chance Grade by itself,” he said. “The urban areas of southern California subsidize a lot of North Coast highway safety projects. The gas tax dollars are our last chance to fix Last Chance Grade.”

Asked what will happen if Proposition 6 passes and repeals SB1, McGuire was not optimistic and repeated a sentiment from a Caltrans open house meeting in July.

“It will be next to impossible to complete Last Chance Grade in a timely manner,” McGuire said. “There’s approximately a $60 billion backlog in state highway safety improvement projects up and down the state.”

McGuire said significant momentum has been made toward repairing Last Chance Grade both the retired and new state directors of Caltrans have been to the site personally.

“Both Caltrans directors have said the Last Chance Grade Project is one of the top priorities of the Department of Transportation,” McGuire said.

McGuire noted the many hours that the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors has spent working with state offices to make sure the project gets launched and money is secured.

“It’s an interesting strategy that some on the Board of Supervisors put their hand out for a billion dollars but don’t want to help pay for it,” McGuire said. “What we have said is if the Del Norte Board of Supervisors are officially against the gas tax, we expect them to return their new gas tax dollars because it’s hypocritical to be against and issue but still take the money that they no longer want to see flowing into the county.”

McGuire said many have worked very hard to make the Last Chance Grade project a reality, when more than $50 million has been spent to reinforce the highway.

“I’m tired of the band-aids,” he said. “I want a permanent fix and so does the rest of the community. We finally have momentum and we have to get this job done.”

Richard Mullen, deputy district director at Caltrans, said passage of Proposition 6 would hinder any chances for funding of all projects around the state, Last Chance Grade included. He said having additional funding will allow for more options when it comes to the project.

Mullen said with a long preliminary list of projects around the state, the odds of getting the state Transportation Commission to fund projects increases when there is a larger pool of money to draw from.

Supervisor Lori Cowan, who cast the sole no vote on Proposition 6, also said she doesn’t want to see the momentum lost when it comes to Last Chance Grade.

Cowan showed information from California State Association of Counties that said the loss of the 12 cent-per-gallon tax would result in a loss of $969,000 annually, which allow Del Norte County to invest in local street and road repairs and maintenance.

Using gas price data collected at local stations, Cowan noted while SB1 raised the price of gasoline by 12 cents, that total price fluctuates from year to year.

According to Cowan’s data, the average price in 2012 was $4.23 before it dropped to $2.82 in 2016 and rebounded to $3.66 in 2018.

As SB1 also increased registration fees for most vehicles in California, Cowan said her own costs to register her five vehicles have not increased as much as speculated at the Aug. 28 supervisors meeting. Cowan showed Department of Motor vehicle data, which said vehicles valued below $4,999 will see a $25 increase, vehicles valued from $5,000 to $24,999 will increase up to $50, with the maximum increase of $175 for vehicles valued at over $60,000.

Cowan said the county has received about $318,000 this year and is set to receive almost $960,000 in SB1 money next year.

“Del Norte County is slotted for a million dollars a year that we will lose if this gas tax is repealed,” Cowan said.

Asked what will happen to Last Chance Grade if Proposition 6 passes, Del Norte Local Transportation Commission Director Tamera Leighton didn’t hold back.

“The forward progress on Last Chance Grade stops if proposition 6 passes,” Leighton said. “All the funding, to date, has been the result of SB1.”

Leighton said without further SB1 funding, the project will not be able to move through the environmental phases.

“You can’t buy what you can’t pay for,” she said. “While it’s a high priority project, it will not go forward without funding and we will revert to only funding safety and emergency projects.”

Leighton said other planned projects and studies, including some that have already begun, will halt.

“It’s not a pretty truth, but people should understand what they are voting for,” Leighton said. “You need to understand that the results you’ll get are what you asked for.”

Leighton will give a presentation today to the Board of Supervisors.

Also on the board’s agenda is discussion and possible action whether or not to to adopt the resolution voted in Aug. 28. According to the agenda, the board may repeal its support of Proposition 6, due to new information.

“Whereas Proposition 6 would jeopardize public safety by eliminating thousands of projects to fix unsafe bridges and overpasses, repair crumbling and unsafe roads and enhance pedestrian safety,” the proposed resolution reads. It also says Proposition 6 would raid $959,651 annually dedicated to future transportation enhancement projects to be used for Last Chance Grade, California 197, U.S. 199 and projects involving U.S. 101 and Dr. Fine Bridge.

The Board of Supervisors meets at 10 a.m. in the Flynn Center, 981 H St.