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Kern County roads officials plan repairs with new gas tax funds

KBAK/KBFX file photo

You'll pay higher taxes at the gas pump, but local roads officials say that will result in better streets and highways.

The bill passed by state lawmakers in April will reportedly bring in some $5 billion a year in new funds, and cities and counties will get millions of that money.

Kern County Public Works Director Craig Pope said the funds are desperately needed.

"We wouldn't have a roads department if this hadn't passed," Pope said. "We were at the point where we were contemplating giving the roads back to the property owners." Now, they hope to start turning things around.

"The information we've seen is that we're going to get $21- to $22 million a year," Pope told Eyewitness News. "So, over $200 million." That's over the ten years in the new measure.

The City of Bakersfield expects to see a total of $86 million over those ten years. They say that will likely start with about $2 million the first year, over $6 million the second year, and then continuing to ramp up.

"I think this is a wonderful opportunity for the city to really step up and bring our roadway system up to where it needs to be," Bakersfield Public Works Director Nick Fidler said.

The money comes from Senate Bill 1. The measure enacted a tax of 12 cents per gallon on gasoline, and 20 cents a gallon on diesel. Those will start this November, and cities and counties expect to see their new funds early next year.

Right now, local officials are deciding which roads will get money and help first.

"We have tremendously, great big potholes, and they've been here quite a few years," Deanna Harvey said a couple weeks ago. She lives in the county on Cedarcrest near Olive Drive. She said their street has been patched at times, but that's washed away.

A neighbor had contacted the county about those conditions, and it was one of four complaints Pope had gotten that day.

His department is looking at which roads they'll tackle first. But, he said they know the money must go for road maintenance.

"This isn't for expansion projects, it is to maintain the existing roadway, and we have plenty of need out there," Pope said. He mentions roads in very tough shape on the west side of the county, and throughout the area.

And, Pope said Kern County has some 3,300 miles of roads, "Which is enough to reach across the United States," he said.

Pope said they'll have to determine which ones will meet the requirements in the new law to get the funds and the repairs.

The city of Bakersfield will pick its first road-fix projects by using their "street saver system" database.

"That will identify which of these streets will be targeted," Fidler said. He says the first year they may be able to fix streets in one subdivision, and do work on a couple "collector streets."

And, Fidler said the new funds will be folded into their existing road maintenance money.

He said those current funds are being used now for a project on Harris Road, and they’ll soon work on Baker Street. He said the new gas-tax money will go for similar projects.

Both road chiefs say there's real value in getting roads fixed before they get really bad.

"If you maintain them when they're in relatively good shape, it costs a quarter of what it takes, or 20 percent of what it takes, if you let it go too long, and then to rebuild it," Pope insists. Though he notes some county roads are at the point of needing to be rebuilt.

And for the county, the new taxes will save the road department itself, and lots of jobs. Pope said the county road budget had faced a $10 million cut. "And, that would mean probably 100 people being laid off," he said.

But, some analysts say the new taxes and fees could cost the average driver $120 a year.

From Kern Council of Governments, Rob Ball notes that's a number he sees reported, but he also said there are estimates that California drivers pay about $1,000 a year in car repairs attributed to bad road conditions.

Back on Cedarcrest Avenue, Peggy Crisman thinks her vehicles have suffered because of the potholes.

"My car has rattles now that I'm sure it wouldn't have if I didn't drive on terrible roads," she told Eyewitness News. But, she wants to be sure the higher gas tax will actually help.

"If it's used for roads, like the gas tax was supposed to be anyway, then I'm sure it will help." Crisman said.

Pope said the new tax must be used for maintenance. He said previous taxes at the pump could be "borrowed" in the state budget, but he said the new tax is protected.

SB 1 also added a new vehicle license fee. That will cost between $25 and $175, based on the value of the vehicle, and it starts January 1, 2018. And, there's also a new $100 annual registration fee for any zero-emission vehicles. That will start in 2020.

While the measure puts most of the funds into maintenance for local and state roads and highways, some funds will also be set up for "transit operations," bridge projects, mass transit projects, and trade corridors.

But, local road departments say they will get a big infusion of money to fix roads.

"It will be double of what we're currently getting," Pope said from the county, "a little better than double of what we've got."

Road conditions can be graded, and Pope said the county now is at about 50 or 51 out of 100. He hopes the new money can bring that up to about 60.

"I've never seen it much higher than 60," he said. "But, I hope we keep it that way."

Fidler said the city's streets were at an average of 69 last year, but that may have dropped after damage from this winter's wet weather. He also hopes the new money can bring up their grade.

"I know everybody doesn't like new taxes, so this is bitter-sweet," Fidler said. "Hopefully, the public will recognize the improvements to the street system as a benefit, as a result of these new funding sources."

And, Pope said the same, especially with what he said will be a gas tax locked in on road maintenance.

"We see this as a real opportunity to finally begin planning, instead of just taking care of emergencies," Pope said. "This finally is a finance stream that we can plan with, and it will be just such a change from what we have been doing. It's going to be great."

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