Union-Tribune

February 2, 2002

Bush plan would cut funding for roads
California might get 30 percent less 


By DANA WILKIE 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON When President Bush reveals his plan for
spending America's tax money, the Americans facing the biggest
jolt could be those who try to make the average California
commute a little less maddening.

Because of a depressed economy and a decline in federal gas-tax revenue, the budget Bush unveils on Monday will propose cutting $9 billion from the money that Washington sends states to build and improve roads.

Perhaps the biggest loser would be California, which would suffer nearly a 30 percent cut in the money it gets from the nation's capital. The state is preparing to fight the cut, but Bush officials insist it is a firm part of the president's proposed budget.

The reduction would affect carefully laid plans to build or
improve highways, major roads, trolleys, subways and bus
systems from San Diego to Sacramento. 

"In a slow economy, to make almost a 30 percent cut in
transportation programs would have a huge impact, not just on
California but across the country," said Jeff Morales, director of
California's Department of Transportation. "We're letting anyone
we can know that this is something we're going to fight."

Money in Washington's gas-tax fund is lower than expected in
part because the government overestimated the amount of
gas-tax receipts it would collect, a U.S. Department of
Transportation official said. There are two major reasons for the
overly optimistic predictions: Companies are investing less than
expected in transportation-related purchases such as trucks or
tires that Washington taxes.

And as states stop using gasoline that includes MTBE the
controversial additive that the federal government has banned
they are switching to ethanol-based fuels that are taxed at nearly half the rate of regular gasoline.

California expects to lose $663 million in the fiscal year that
begins Oct. 1 27 percent of the $2.5 billion in federal road
money it is getting this year. A cut that deep would cost an
estimated 26,000 state jobs during the next three years,
Morales said.

Taxpayer advocates say Bush's plan comes at a time when
America's roads need even more money to keep pace with a
growing number of motorists.

"This will be one of the biggest political fights you'll see this
year," said Keith Ashdown, spokesman for Taxpayers for
Common Sense. Money for roads "is a sort of Holy Grail in
Congress."

About one-third of the money that San Diego County spends on
transportation comes from Washington. This year, that pencils
out to about $350 million.

The county stands to lose an estimated $66 million under Bush's
plan almost one-fifth of the federal money it now gets.

"That's significant in the sense that ($66 million) would pretty
much fund any given transportation project," said Mario
Oropeza, senior transportation planner for the San Diego
Association of Governments.

That loss threatens to hold up long-anticipated projects
designed to make travel in San Diego faster and more
comfortable.

San Diego's Metropolitan Transit Development Board gets about
$40 million a year from Washington to improve its bus and
light-rail systems, among other things. Susan Brown, the board's financial planning expert, said in the 16 years she has worked on such issues she's never seen "this much of a reduction" in the federal road money coming to states.

Among the board's projects that depend heavily on the gas tax
are a $36 million plan to computerize the fare system on city
buses. The system which allows passengers to swipe
credit-card-like passes across a scanner was to be up and
running by December 2004. But the federal cut could set things
back, Brown said.

It could also delay the building of a light-rail line from Old Town
to Balboa Avenue. Or a similar line from Oceanside to
Escondido. Or the construction of a new border trolley station at
San Ysidro.

On Interstate 15, one of the region's most congested highways,
plans to widen lanes and add new ones along the southern and
northern sections could also be delayed. But officials say they
will have money to finish work already under way on I-15's
midsection, from Route 56 to the southern edge of Escondido.

"The projects that are closer to completion we would seek to
protect the most," said Jose Nuncio, a project manager for
Caltrans' San Diego office. "The ones that are farther out . . . until we have money for those, we really don't know when we can get started."