by Ed Ring originally publisher at California Policy Center
Nobody argues that California’s roads need huge upgrades. But the solution didn’t require the $0.12 per gallon tax hike that goes into effect today. The root cause of these neglected roads – and the reason even more taxes will never be enough to fix them – is the power of public sector unions, whose agenda is consistently at odds with the public interest. Let us count the ways.
1 – CalTrans mismanagement:
CalTrans could have done a much better job of maintaining California’s roads. One of the most diligent critics (and auditors) of CalTrans is state Senator John Moorlach (R, Costa Mesa), the only CPA in California’s state legislature. Last year, Moorlach released a report on CalTrans which he summarized in “7-Step Fix for ‘Mismanaged’ Caltrans,” an article on his official website. Just a few highlights include the following:
- In May 2014 the Legislative Analyst Office determined that CalTrans was overstaffed by 3,500 architects and engineers, costing over $500 million per year.
- While to an average state transportation agency outsources over 50% of its work, CalTrans outsources only 10% of its work. Arizona and Florida outsource more than 80%.
- 54% of CalTrans staff is at or near retirement age, so a hiring freeze would reduce staff merely through attrition, without requiring layoffs.
But Moorlach didn’t make explicit the reason CalTrans is mismanaged. It’s because the unions that run Sacramento don’t want to outsource CalTrans work. The unions don’t want to reduce CalTrans headcount, or hold CalTrans management accountable. Those actions might help Californians, but they would undermine union power.
2 – Bullet train boondoggle:
Money that could have been allocated to maintain and improve California’s roads is being squandered on a train that will do nothing to ameliorate California’s transportation challenges. A LOT of money. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, California’s freeways can be resurfaced and have a lane added in each direction at a cost of roughly $5.0 million per mile in rural areas, about twice that in urban areas.
Meanwhile, the latest estimate for California’s “bullet train,” is $98 billion (that’s $245 million per mile), thanks to construction delays, and design challenges including nearly 50 miles of tunnels through seismically active mountains to the north and south. And hardly anyone is going to ride it. Ridership won’t even pay operating costs. But Sacramento pushes ahead with this monstrous waste when that same money could (at the urban price of $10 million per mile) resurface and add a lane in each direction to 10,000 miles of California’s freeways. Imagine smooth, unclogged roads. It’s not impossible. It’s just policy priorities.
But while bad roads destroy the chassis of millions of cars and trucks, and commuters endure stop-and-go traffic year after year, the California High Speed Rail Authority dutifully pushes on. Why?
Because that’s what the government employee unions want. They don’t want roads, with all the flexibility and autonomy that roads offer. They want to create a gigantic high-speed rail empire, with tens of thousands of new public employees to drive the trains, maintain the trains, maintain the tracks, and provide security, running up staggering annual deficits. But all of them will be members of public sector unions.
3 – All rapid transit boondoggles:
In a handful of very dense urban areas around the U.S., fast intercity trains make economic sense. But most light rail schemes, along with laughably absurd “streetcar” schemes that actually block urban lanes sorely needed by vehicles, do not achieve levels of ridership that even begin to justify their construction when the alternative is using that money for better, wider connector roads and freeways. The impact of ride sharing apps, the advent of non-polluting cars, and the option of using buses to accomplish mass transit goals all speak to the superior versatility of roads over rail for urban transportation.
So why do California’s cities continue to poor billions into light rail and streetcars, when that money could be used to unclog the roads?
To reiterate: The public sector unions that run California want tens of thousands of new public employees to operate the trains and streetcars, maintain them, maintain the tracks, and provide security, running up staggering annual deficits. But doing this means that public sector union membership – hence public sector union power – will increase.
4 – CEQA reform so people can live closer to the jobs:
The median home value in the United States today is $202,700. The median home value in California today is $509,600, 2.5 times as much! There is no shortage of land in California, and the alleged shortages of energy and water are self-inflicted as the result of policies enacted by California’s state legislature. But instead of reforming California’s Environmental Quality Act, SB 375, AB 32, and countless other laws that have made building homes in California nearly impossible, California’s legislature is doubling down on more government solutions – primarily to subsidize either extremely high density housing, or subsidized housing for the economically disadvantaged, or both.
None of this is necessary. Outside of California’s major urban centers, there is no reason homes cannot be profitably built and sold at a median price of $202,700, and there is no reason the people living in those homes cannot drive or ride share to work on fast, unclogged freeways.
But California’s public sector unions want more regulations on home building, and they want more subsidized public housing. Because those solutions, even though inadequate and coercive, enable them to hire vast new bureaucracies to enforce the many regulations and administer the public assets. Unleashing the private sector to build affordable homes in a competitive market would rob these unions of their opportunity to acquire more power. It’s that simple.
5 – Insatiable appetite for pension fund contributions:
According to a California Policy Center study, taking barely adequate annual employer pension contributions into account, the average unionized state/local government worker in California makes over $120,000 per year in pay and benefits. But to adequately fund their promised pension benefits, employers will need to pay at least another $20,000 per employee to the pension funds. This funding gap, which equates to over $20 billion per year, is the additional amount that is required to cover the difference between how much California’s public employee pension funds currently collect from taxpayers, and how much they need to collect to keep the promises that union controlled politicians have made to the government unions they “negotiate” with. That is a best-case scenario.
It could be much worse. A 2016 California Policy Center analysis (ref. table 2-C) estimated that under a worst-case scenario, the annual costs to fund California’s public employee pension funds could cost taxpayers nearly $70 billion more per year than they are currently paying.
And by the way, California’s pension funds are themselves almost entirely under the control of public sector unions – research the background of CalPERS and CalSTRS board directors to verify the degree of influence they have. Absent significant reform, funding California’s public employee pensions is going to continue to consume every dollar in new taxes for the next several decades. The cumulative financial impact of funding these pensions is easily triple that of the bullet train’s $100 billion fiasco, probably much more.
Let’s not mince words. Government unions control California. They collect and spend over $1.0 billion every year, and spend most of that money on either explicit political campaigning and lobbying, or soft advocacy via expensive public relations campaigns and sponsored academic studies. Their presence is felt everywhere, from local transit districts to the governor’s office. They make or break politicians at will, by outspending or outlasting their opponents. At best, California’s most powerful corporate players do not cross these unions, often they collude with them.
California’s public sector unions operate as senior partners in a coalition that includes left-wing oligarchs especially in the Silicon Valley, extreme environmentalists and their powerful trial lawyer cohorts, and the Latino Legislative Caucus – usurped by leftist radicals – and their many allies in the social justice/identity politics industry. The power of this government union led coalition is nearly absolute, and the consequences to California’s private sector working class have been nothing short of devastating.
Government unions force California’s agencies to over-hire, overpay, and mismanage, because that benefits their members even as it harms the public. These unions enforce absurd policy priorities that further harm the public in order to increase their power. They are the reason California has increased its gas tax.
Pump bump: California drivers to pay 12 cents more per gallon starting Wednesday – San Jose Mercury, Oct. 31, 2017
California’s gas tax increases Wednesday – Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2017
How much you’ll REALLY pay in gasoline tax in California – San Diego Union Tribune, Apr. 23, 2017
What Californians Could Build Using the $64 Billion Bullet Train Budget – California Policy Center, Mar. 21, 2017
American Road and Transportation Builders Association – FAQs, ref. “How much does it cost to build a mile of road?
High-Speed Rail Delay More than Triples Planned Cost to San Jose – San Jose Inside, Oct. 2, 2017
A 13.5-mile tunnel will make or break California’s bullet train – Los Angeles Times, Oct. 21, 2017
California Environmental Quality Act – Wikipedia
State Senate bills aim to make homes more affordable, but they won’t spur nearly enough construction – Los Angeles Times, Aug. 11, 2017
California’s Public Sector Compensation Trends – California Policy Center, Jan. 2017
What is the Average Pension for a Retired Government Worker in California? – California Policy Center, Mar. 2017
The Coming Public Pension Apocalypse, and What to Do About It – California Policy Center, May 2016