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Central Coast struggles to pay for roads as gas tax revenue plummets

Flickr member Mike Mozart

More Californians are choosing electric and hybrid vehicles, which is causing the state's gas tax revenue to fall dramatically. This has direct effects on the Central Coast where those in charge of maintaining the local roads are finding ever-shrinking budgets to get the job done. 

Internal combustion engines, the kinds that run on gasoline and diesel, are being replaced by a suite of electric options. While the switchover has environmental benefits, the structure used for financing the state's roadways is taking a major hit as a result.

This fiscal year alone, Santa Barbara County has seen a drop of nearly $3 million in funding for local roads.

"And, the State of California has put us on notice," said Scott McGulpin, Director of Public Works for Santa Barbara County regarding the 2016/17 fiscal year. "We can anticipate about another $3.2 million drop in our state gas taxes, so as you can imagine, that's going to have a significant impact on our ability to maintain our road system."

McGulpin said the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors helped cover the current shortage with money from the General Fund, but he's not sure how long that fix will work.

"That can't happen every year, I mean there's multiple priorities in our budget process for the board to consider," said McGulpin.

San Luis Obispo County's Public Works Department said in an email to KCBX that it's facing the same problem. From the current fiscal year to the next, leaders are estimating a drop of $1.8 million in gas tax revenue from the state.

One big difference however between the two regions is that Santa Barbara County is considered a "Self-Help" region. Voters approved Measure A back in 2008 to help cover some of the area's infrastructure costs. That half-cent sales tax is expected to generate an estimated $1.050 billion over its life, in addition to possible matching funds from the state and federal government.

"This is a huge difference when talking about transportation funding challenges," said Stephanie Hicks with the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) in an email. "In October, the SLOCOG board authorized staff to move forward with public engagement to continue gathering feedback on the transportation wants/needs of the public in our region."

Hicks said her organization is currently forecasting a funding gap of approximately $225 million for the next 10 years.

"I would argue that SLO County is in a much more perilous state of affairs with regard to support of transportation infrastructure," said Hicks in reference to the Santa Barbara County area's Self-Help status.

Last year, Governor Brown signed into law SB 1077. It requires the state to design and implement a pilot program (California Road Charge Pilot Program) to study a new model for funding roads. The state is currently looking for 5000 volunteers to have their transportation usage tracked, in order to see which possible road charge system could work best.