Two Eureka road rehabilitation projects are likely to be cut, and the long-anticipated $38 million U.S. Highway 101 Corridor Improvement Project at the Indianola Interchange will likely be delayed two years, according to a report released by the California Transportation Commission.
Funding for these improvement projects comes from the state’s gas tax, which has seen massive shortfall as gas prices have plummeted and fuel efficient vehicles, including electric plug-ins, replace gas guzzlers.
“The Eureka-Arcata 101 safety corridor is an accident waiting to happen,” Humboldt County Association of Governments Executive Director Marcella Clem said of the safety project postponement.
Caltrans studied the entire Eureka- Arcata safety corridor from 2009 to 2014, finding the Indianola Interchange to have an accident rate 43 percent above the state average for intersections and ramps. The interchange requires drivers to cross an often foggy 50 mph section of the highway without a traffic signal or on-ramp.
The two road rehabilitation projects — one along Felt Road, Hawthorne and 14th streets, and the other along Highland and Koster streets — are each slated to cost about $400,000, and involve fixing potholes and smoothing worn pavement, according to Clem.
“We’re very thankful the interchange project wasn’t cut; the state was tasked with deleting $754 million worth of projects,” Clem said, adding that the fates of these projects will be finalized next month in a CTC meeting in San Joaquin County.
Humboldt County received between $6 million to $8 million from the state in both 2012 and 2014 for road improvement projects, according to State Transportation Improvement Project funding estimates. The county received nothing for 2016. This cut came as part of the CTC’s announcement in January that it would hack three-quarters of a billion dollars dedicated to transportation projects.
“We have a number of very important projects we’d like to do, but as our improvement money dwindles it makes it difficult for us,” said Myles Cochrane, Caltrans District 1 chief information officer, who serves Humboldt, Mendocino, Trinity, and Del Norte counties.
In April the California Transportation Commission deputy director Mitch Weiss traveled from Sacramento to Eureka to pitch a pilot program to the Humboldt County Association of Governments which will look at doing away with the gas tax completely. Its replacement would be a tax based on the number of miles driven, as opposed to the amount of fuel purchased at the pump.
“As fuel efficiency improves, we’ll be paying less to maintain those roads. The problem we’re having now is only going to get worse if we don’t do anything about it,” Weiss said, asking the HCAOG board to urge constituents to participate in the pilot study.
Humboldt County, along with the rest of the North Coast, is receiving special attention from Caltrans headquarters in Sacramento as it looks to recruit more rural residents to participate in its nine-month study. Caltrans records measure 1,922 miles of rural roads in Humboldt County, compared to only 414 miles of urban roads.
“We want to make sure all types of drivers are represented in our findings, particularly rural drivers,” Caltrans Public Information Officer Vanessa Wiseman said, adding that worries do exist that a mileage based tax, or “road charge,” might unfairly burden rural residents, who typically have to drive further than their urban counterparts.
“There has been concern voiced, and reasonably so, that a road charge tax would have a greater effect on rural drivers. That’s a big part of why we’re reaching out to Humboldt County for our pilot program- to study that,” said Wiseman, who also noted that Oregon has already completed similar pilot studies and found rural drivers weren’t adversely affected.
“While rural drivers do have to drive further in many cases, it’s also found that they typically drive less fuel efficient vehicles, especially in agricultural areas. Moving away from the gas tax could help them in that way,” Wiseman said.
Other concerns voiced by drivers to the CTC, which could stoke particular ire in Humboldt County, center around privacy.
“If one does a lot of driving on private roads for agricultural purposes, that’s technically not subject to the excise tax,” Weiss said when speaking last month in Eureka. “The trade-off is we have to know you’re on a private road.”
Having to relay not only information about how much one drives, but also about where one drives, to government agencies could prove to be a sensitive issue, Clem acknowledged.
“The technology would have to know when you exit a public road and enter onto a private road, and also when you cross state lines, as those miles technically shouldn’t be taxed,” Clem said.
As the pilot program readies to launch in July, the Caltrans District 1 office in Eureka is urging North Coast residents to participate.
“We want to test as many possible solutions as we can and work together as Californians, from big city lawmakers to Humboldt county farmers, to figure out what’s best for our state,” Cochrane said.
In the meantime, before such a tax swap happens, Clem said local officials are exploring at least one simple solution to the funding shortfall: introducing a countywide half-cent sales tax. Despite its potential to bring in an estimated $10 million to be used for transportation infrastructure improvement, Clem is worried her constituents might be cool to the idea of another sales tax, noting that a similar proposal failed last June in Fortuna.
“We’re a little hesitant to add another sales tax, but our roads are failing. There is a growing need,” said Clem, adding that a 400 person county-wide telephone poll is underway to gauge public opinion about a possible new sales tax. The results of the poll will be discussed at HCAOG’s June 16 meeting in Eureka.
While both local and state officials wrestle with how to fix the shortfall, Humboldt County Director of Public Works Tom Mattson said he’s seeing mounting infrastructure problems grow exponentially in cost as their condition worsens.
“We need an additional $10 million a year to catch up on everything we need to do,” Mattson said. “We’re talking basic maintenance — if you don’t paint your house it rots away. If you don’t do basic maintenance on roads now, you’ve got to rebuild the entire road from scratch later.”