In summary

Gov. Gavin Newsom seems to have a problem dealing with the politics of transportation.

Gavin Newsom has a transportation problem — not personally, but politically.

As governor, Newsom travels in an entourage with a personal driver and lots of security.

However, he shares the road with millions of Californians who must cope with ever-increasing congestion, poorly maintained pavement and sky-high fuel prices.

A couple of years ago, when Jerry Brown was still governor, he and legislators mustered the courage to raise gas taxes to fix some of the state’s worst roadway conditions.

It was not popular. One state senator who voted for it was recalled for doing so, and the $5 billion a year package, Senate Bill 1, survived a repeal initiative thanks only to a very misleading ballot title and a massively financed campaign promising voters they would see improvements.

Understandably, therefore, the business and labor groups that backed SB 1 and legislators who voted for it are very sensitive that funds be spent as promised, which is why there was such a sharp reaction when Newsom appeared to renege.

Just before speaking to a global conference on climate change in New York, Newsom issued an executive order to the state transportation agency to “leverage the more than $5 billion in annual … spending for construction, operations and maintenance to help reverse the trend of increased fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Newsom said he wanted to “reduce congestion through innovative strategies designed to encourage people to shift from cars to other modes of transportation” and wanted to “fund transportation options that … reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as transit, walking, biking and other active modes.”

Shortly thereafter, the Department of Transportation marked three long-standing highway projects for “deletion,” saying the funds would be “held in reserve for priority rail projects and other priorities aligned with (Newsom’s) executive order.”

Boom. Republican politicians, later joined by Democrats, raised a ruckus, saying that the diversions, while involving relatively small amounts of money, were breaking promises to voters.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon publicly reminded Newsom that “the voters of California recognized those promises and resoundingly defeated a proposal that would have been a roadblock on the way to fixing roads used by residents, businesses and visitors,” adding, “Now is not the time to go back on those promises, and the Legislature will stand by those safeguards.”

Finally, after the flap had percolated in the media for days, Newsom last week denied that funds were being diverted.

“I’m confused. … I think they’re conflating things,” Newsom told reporters at an event. “Some are doing it, respectfully, intentionally. SB 1 is locked in. That money is used for its intended purposes, period, full stop. One cannot legally redirect those dollars.”

The latter may be technically true, but given the tortured history of SB 1, Newsom should have been much more circumspect about redirecting any money from long-standing and much-needed highway projects.

It was not the first time that the first-term governor had fumbled on transportation matters.

Shortly after being inaugurated, he threatened to withhold SB 1 funds from cities that dragged their feet on housing construction, and had to reverse himself when city officials and legislators cried foul.

He also created needless confusion when he declared that he would not pursue a statewide bullet train project that Jerry Brown had championed, but then said he wanted to continue constructing a stretch in the San Joaquin Valley that would somehow be linked up with the Bay Area.

Newsom seems to misunderstand the importance that Californians attach to transporting themselves and their families and how muddled policy pronouncements can backfire.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...