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Post-Halloween fright: 12-cent a gallon gas tax increase

GUY KOVNER,

The big fright comes the day after Halloween this year, as California motorists wake up Wednesday to gasoline prices pumped up by a 12-cent gas tax increase, the highest in the nation this year and one that has unsettled consumers and prompted a Republican backlash.

Effective at midnight, the petroleum price bump is the work of California Democrats, including Gov. Jerry Brown, who approved a measure in April expected to raise about $5.4 billion a year over the next decade for road improvements and other transportation projects.

About half the money will go to improvements of state highways and bridges, with the other half allocated to local governments and transit agencies for street and road repairs, and transit services.

Sonoma County and its nine cities anticipate $18.7 million a year in new road and transportation funding from the measure, according to the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who voted for the bill, SB 1, called it “the largest infusion of ongoing transportation dollars into Sonoma County in history.”

No one likes to raise gas taxes, he said, but a $59 billion deferred maintenance backlog for the state highway system along with a $79 billion backlog for local roads made action unavoidable, McGuire said.

“We have a crisis on our roadways,” he said, noting California has not raised state gas taxes in 24 years.

California had the seventh highest state gas tax rate in the nation at 38 cents per gallon as of Jan. 1, according to the Tax Foundation, an independent tax policy nonprofit founded in 1937. Pennsylvania had the top rate at 58 cents a gallon and Alaska was lowest at 12 cents.

California’s fuel tax increase is the largest of any state since New Jersey’s 23-cent increase a year ago, said Patrick DeHaan, an analyst for the Gasbuddy.com website.

The Golden State’s overall gas price is typically the highest in the continental United States, as was the case Tuesday when California’s statewide average price for a gallon of regular gas was $3.07, the only one over the $3 mark, according to Gasbuddy.com.

The average price nationwide was $2.48 a gallon, the website said.

In Santa Rosa, prices ranged from $2.79 to $3.29, according to Gasbuddy’s consumer-reported survey.

Ivan Ayarca of Rohnert Park, gassing up Tuesday at the Arco station at Mendocino and College avenues, said he wasn’t aware of the imminent tax hike as he paid $3.49 for the supreme blend.

“It’s kind of steep for me,” said the Santa Rosa Junior College student whose budget is tight.

Ayarca had no doubt dealers will pass along the tax to motorists.

“They’re gonna do it,” he said. “All about money.”

At the same station, Carol Ann Vega of Rohnert Park said she wasn’t filling up to beat the tax increase, but simply out of need.

“Whether (the price) goes up or down, I need gas,” she said.

Vega said she would vote to rescind the tax “in a minute.”

Two contenders for the Republican gubernatorial nomination — John Cox, a San Diego businessman, and Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach — are backing proposed 2018 ballot measures that would repeal the tax hike.

Cox’s measure would also include a constitutional amendment requiring voter approval of any future gas and car tax increases.

Two congressional Republicans, Reps. Mimi Walters of Irvine and Doug LaMalfa of Richvale in Butte County, are backing Cox’s measure.

McGuire said California backed into the massive road maintenance cash crunch with more vehicles on the road than ever in the face of falling gas tax revenue thanks to the “most fuel-efficient fleet” in history.

Revenue from the 12-cent tax increase is the only way to pay for major North Bay projects, including widening the Novato Narrows on Highway 101 and elevating the flood-prone stretch of Highway 37, he said.

Every $1 billion spent on transportation projects creates 14,000 full-time jobs, McGuire said.

Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, said the tax increase is “hugely meaningful” to Sonoma County.

The Board of Supervisors and city councils will determine how the money is spent, she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.