Ask Not for Whom the 101 Tolls It Tolls for Construction

#8 FINANCING FREEWAYS

Overcrowded freeways and staggering commute times have long been a drawback to living and working in Los Angeles, and the prospects for improvement are getting worse, not better. Transportation funding has been hard to come by for many years, and with the state's budget deficit, much of what was available is being yanked.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for the suspension of Proposition 42, a measure approved by voters in 2002, to fund more than $1 billion in highway and transit improvements from gasoline taxes. Nearly 200 projects that were to receive financing through 2008 now have no funding at all.

L.A. could have used some of that money.

Roughly $450 million in cuts have delayed or eliminated local freeway projects that were expected to be funded from traffic congestion relief programs. They include $200 million for a carpool lane on the Golden State (5) Freeway through the San Fernando Valley, $118 million for freeway construction on Route 71 through Pomona, and a $135.5 million carpool lane project on the Riverside (91) Freeway.

Last year, a plan to double-deck the Ventura (101) Freeway from downtown L.A. to the Ventura County line was shelved because it was deemed too expensive. Another plan to widen the freeway and add lanes, ran into opposition from residents.

Elsewhere, improvements to the interchange between the 101 and the San Diego (405) Freeway, another major bottleneck, has proceeded in fits and starts for over a decade. The Long Beach (710) Freeway is also in need of renovation to deal with port truck traffic, and the carpool lane on the 405 remains incomplete.

Given the dearth of state funds, some creative financing alternatives are needed to get these projects off the ground.

Currently there are only two ways to raise money for freeway expansions: increase the gasoline tax or create toll lanes, which give each driver a choice of whether to pay a toll or not.

Given the already high price of fuel, toll lanes should be given long, hard consideration.

This alternative has been criticized as just another perk for the rich, but there's really no other way to cope with the estimated 15 million new cars that are expected to hit California freeways in the next decade. New roads need to be built, and those who pay the tolls will at least get a few minutes shaved off their drives in return for their dollars spent.

Studies show that general-purpose freeway lanes do not reduce traffic congestion and get filled up within two to three years. Lanes that are restricted or specialized, such as diamond lanes or toll lanes, can be managed and changed for specific purposes including reducing congestion.

Toll projects typically take the form of public-private partnerships. Other cash-strapped states, including Colorado, Virginia and Washington, are looking to Texas as a role model.

A law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003 provided regional transportation authorities with the power over toll revenue bonding and land acquisition. With the legislation, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is aiming for the construction of a 4,000-mile network of new highways and rail corridors.

California needs to do the same.

There are legitimate reasons to question the wisdom of bringing private entrepreneurs into the infrastructure business. One example of a public-private partnership gone bad is in Orange County, where the 10-mile-long 91 Express Lanes had to be purchased by the Orange County Transportation Authority for $207.5 million.

In that case, the private consortium that built the toll road used a non-compete clause to block any expansion of the nearby Riverside (91) Freeway, which led to congestion and resentment by locals who refused to use the toll road. Since buying the Express Lanes in 2002, the OCTA has expanded them with general purpose lanes.

But Robert Poole, director of transportation at the Reason Public Policy Institute, believes it is possible for public-private partnerships to work effectively if risks are divvied up and funding is derived from a combination of traditional sources and tolls.

A panel of transportation experts has prepared a report on California's transportation infrastructure that recommends converting car-pool lanes into high-occupancy toll lanes and leveraging existing revenue streams to float bonds for major improvements. To jump-start the process, however, the state Legislature must adopt a "firewall" bill that protects future funds derived from Proposition 42 from being used for other purposes.

Also needed is legislation that would give oversight of individual projects involving tolls to local authorities. That way, enacting a plan such as the Southern California Association of Government's $16 billion toll of heavy-duty trucks at the Los Angeles Harbor can move forward at the local level, rather than be tied up in bureaucratic red tape for decades.


FINANCING FREEWAYS

Proposal: Create a funding mechanism to continue local freeway projects



Obstacles: Driver opposition to toll roads; reservations about public-private partnerships



Cost: $30 billion to $100 billion statewide, much of it paid by tolls



Time Frame: 10 years

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