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Joe Guzzardi: California beats Pittsburgh for driving — for now

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Posted: Saturday, November 23, 2013 12:00 am

Whenever I tell my Pittsburgh friends and neighbors that I moved from Lodi, their first reactions are always the same: How can you stand the winters and how could you drive in California? As for the weather, that one is easy. I tell them that I went to school in Pittsburgh and knew what winters in the Mid-Atlantic states are all about. Summer is the tougher time of the year when its often cloudy, humid and wet versus Lodi’s day-after-day brilliant sunshine.

Driving, however, is a different subject. Being behind the wheel in California is a breeze compared to Pittsburgh, with its narrow roads, poorly signed streets, hills, ravines and bridges. To get around Pittsburgh, drivers have to be ready to navigate its 446 bridges, the most in the world and three more than Venice. (If you want to be technical about it, the official definition of a bridge is that it must be a structure over which vehicles can travel and under which barges can pass. Using that standard, Venice only has one bridge.)

Pittsburgh’s natives often wax nostalgic about the city’s bridges, the first of which opened in 1818 and was made from wood. Closed long ago, the Pittsburgh’s oldest functioning bridge is the Smithfield Street Bridge, which opened in 1883.

Most of the downtown bridges are painted yellow with black trim to match the colors of the city flag. Think Steelers, Pirates and Penguins, the three Pittsburgh professional sports franchises that all wear yellow and black on their uniforms.

After living in Pittsburgh for five years, the most important thing I know about its bridges is that if I get on the wrong one — a strong possibility — I’m going to be very late to wherever I’m headed. I rely on my GPS to get from Point A to Point B, and still miss the comparatively traffic-free Lodi and relative simplicity of getting around California.

Unfortunately, Californians may soon be paying more to drive on its expansive road system. Will Kempton, the executive director of Transportation California and former California Department of Transportation director, and Jim Earp, a member of the California Transportation Commission, have filed a proposed Nov. 2014 ballot measure that would double licensing fees to generate an estimated $3 billion annually for road improvements. According to Earp, the fees are necessary because “California is facing a transportation funding crisis.”

The California Road Repairs Act of 2014 would phase in over four-year period a doubling of the existing license fee. Currently at 0.65 percent (as a percentage of a vehicle’s market value), the bill proposes to raise the fee 0.25 percent a year until it reached 1.65 percent by 2018.

California’s licensing fees have a contentious history that dates back at least a decade. In 2003, then-Gov. Gray Davis hiked the fee, motorists rebelled and Arnold Schwarzenegger used the revised charges as a campaign issue in the recall election. When Schwarzenegger took office, he quickly lowered the fee.

Three significant roadblocks, pun intended, must be cleared before the fee becomes a reality. First, the bill must be approved for signature gathering. Second, within 150 days after approval, 807,615 valid signatures must be collected to put the bill on the Nov. 2014 ballot. Finally, voters must pass the measure.

Whether voters will support another California tax remains to be seen. But part of increased revenue must be spent on bridge upgrades. That might be a good idea. In 2006, a Transportation for America study found that 30 Pittsburgh bridges are deficient, something that could have been avoided with preventive maintenance.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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