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It's been three decades since the federal government raised the gas tax. Many states are turning to voters this fall, asking them to raise revenue to fund road and bridge repairs and other maintenance. But in California, voters will decide whether to repeal a recent gas tax hike. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Prop 6 would repeal a 12-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax - that's 20 cents for diesel - as well as a recent increase in vehicle registration fees. Its conservative backers are trying to mobilize support in places like the Inland Empire. That's the nickname for the vast megalopolis east of LA where many people have moved for cheaper housing. Now, there are a lot of super commuters here who travel 45 miles or farther to get to work.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Yes on 6. Yes on 6. Yes on 6.
SIEGLER: In a shopping center in Corona, Prop 6 supporters are chanting at a rally after work. Speakers like Melissa Melendez, a Republican state assemblywoman, are striking a populist tone.
MELISSA MELENDEZ: Is it the government's money, or is it our money?
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Our money.
MELENDEZ: That's right.
SIEGLER: Republican Bill Essayli says voters here drive farther to work than a lot of Californians.
BILL ESSAYLI: We're on the 91 Freeway, the 15 Freeway. Every day, to get to our jobs, we have to work, unlike the people in Sacramento who just collect a paycheck.
SIEGLER: Essayli is running to represent this assembly district and would be working in Sacramento next year if he wins.
This gas tax repeal is also widely seen as an effort to mobilize Republican voters to the polls. In California, the GOP is trying to hold on to a number of House seats in swing districts that could determine who controls the chamber. That might explain why close to a million dollars in donations to the Prop 6 campaign is reported to have come from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Speaker Paul Ryan and others in Congress who wouldn't normally be weighing in on a local California ballot measure.
KEVIN DE LEON: This is, I believe, a Machiavellian ploy by Washington Republicans to overturn what we believe is a really good policy to repair highways and grow the economy.
SIEGLER: That's State Senator Kevin de Leon, who's running for the U.S. Senate against fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein. He helped broker the gas tax and transportation bill in the legislature last year. It's estimated California faces a $60 billion shortfall when it comes to road repairs and critical maintenance.
DE LEON: Quite frankly, in the fifth-largest economy in the world, we have a crumbling infrastructure.
SIEGLER: Gas tax revenues are generally in decline across the country as people are driving more fuel-efficient cars. Robert Puentes is tracking the some-250 transportation-related measures on the ballot nationwide. He's president of the think tank, Eno Center for Transportation.
ROBERT PUENTES: The bottom line is there is not enough money to go around the country for all of the transportation improvements and investments and upgrades and modernization that's needed. And so eliminating the gas tax increase in California would surely hurt that state's ability to invest in its transportation network.
SIEGLER: Puentes says, generally, efforts to raise taxes or use bonds to pay for local infrastructure improvements get bipartisan support. Everyone uses the transportation system, and the money has to come from somewhere. Still, the frustration in California about the rising costs of gas, which was already high here, is real.
Jessie Bohse drives 60 miles one way from Victorville, Calif., where she can afford to live, to her job at a prison near LA. She's voting for the repeal. She's been doing the math about what the extra gas tax is costing her.
JESSIE BOHSE: Considering I have to do this, so it's like almost 50 bucks a week. That's a lot of money. So this is not going to work.
SIEGLER: Opponents of Prop 6 like to point out that commuters like Bohse are also paying out-of-pocket costs already in the wear and tear on their cars because they're driving on battered, pothole-strewn roads. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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