Few things illustrate the congestion caused by the booming trade at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as the thousands of trucks clogging the Long Beach (710) Freeway each day.
The long-sought prospect of getting many of those trucks off that freeway and into truck-only toll lanes received a major boost earlier this month when the state Legislature approved a massive infrastructure package.
For starters, some of the $2 billion set aside for goods-movement projects in an upcoming $37 billion bond package could be used to jump-start construction of truck-only toll lanes.
The bond package is slated to go to voters in November. It would include money for four needs, including affordable housing, levee repair and school facilities. But the biggest piece, $20 billion, would be for transportation upgrades.
Just as important as the bonds is related legislation that also passed that would allow the state to seek private investors for toll projects. That bill, AB 1467, by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nu & #324;ez, D-Los Angeles, awaits the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has indicated he intends to sign it.
"Getting those trucks off the freeway and into dedicated lanes is a high priority for goods movement and one that will be very popular," said Wally Baker, senior vice president with the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., which has been lobbying for years for truck-only toll lanes to speed the movement of cargo through the region.
The transportation bond financing component has not been specifically earmarked for the construction of toll lanes. But overall, Los Angeles County figures to get at least $2 billion from the $20 billion transportation bond, including hundreds of millions of dollars in public transit dollars and in congestion relief projects, as well as tens of millions of dollars for security measures at the ports. There also would be nearly $1 billion set aside to implement measures to reduce pollution at the ports.
It will be up to the California Transportation Commission to select which projects will be allowed to move forward with bond monies, including any involving toll lanes. The projects are likely to be staggered over the next decade, with those now ready for construction moving to the head of the line.
But toll lanes are specifically targeted in the Nu & #324;ez bill. It authorizes eight public-private partnerships throughout the state. Four would be for high occupancy toll lanes, with two of those in Northern California and two in Southern California. The other four would address goods movement bottlenecks, again two in Northern California and two in Southern California.
The idea is to have the private sector build the projects and sign lease agreements allowing them to recoup their investments by charging tolls for up to 30 years. After that, the projects would revert to state control.
While no formal proposals for toll truck lanes have been submitted, there is widespread expectation that truck-only toll lanes leading out of the port complex would be at the top of the list.
"We're very encouraged by these developments, but there's still a long way to go before we see any toll lanes," said Fran Inman, senior vice president with Majestic Realty Co. and chair of the transportation committee and infrastructure task force at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
Reducing congestion along the Long Beach Freeway was one of the aims of the PierPass program to extend gate hours at the ports. Launched last summer, that program has shifted nearly one-third of truck traffic out of traditional weekday hours to nighttimes and weekends. But it hasn't taken trucks off the freeway.
Exactly what route the toll lanes would take and how far they would extend is still unclear. It's also unclear if the freeway would be widened to accommodate the additional lanes or if the toll lanes would be elevated above the existing freeway.
The Southern California Association of Governments has backed a proposal for toll lanes along the Long Beach Freeway to the Pomona (60) Freeway and then east along that route at least to Riverside. That's a total of more than 60 miles and given the multibillion-dollar cost, would probably have to be done in phases.
Also, the Long Beach Freeway portion would need federal approval because it's an interstate highway. While that was an obstacle in years past, the U.S. Department of Transportation last year signaled its support for toll lanes that expand capacity along federal highways.
But there are also other possible routes, including putting truck-only toll lanes on the 4-mile length of the Terminal Island (47) Freeway or the Gerald Desmond Bridge, which itself is in dire need of repair.
Whatever the case, before any specific proposals can move forward, they must receive approval from the California Department of Transportation, the California Transportation Commission and the Legislature.
It's that last step, the legislative approval, that most concerns toll lane proponents. That clause was inserted into the bill because of problems that surfaced with the operation of toll lanes along the highly congested Riverside (91) Freeway in Orange County.
In the mid-1990s, the state agreed not to pursue any improvement projects on the rest of the freeway because they could conceivably reduce the financial incentive for commuters to take the toll lanes, which were built and operated by a private entity. When word of that deal became public, an outcry ensued. Under intense pressure from state legislators, the deal was scrapped and the toll lanes reverted to public-sector control.
Now, though, toll lane proponents say that requiring legislative approval could scare away potential private sector investors, especially if the bid process and final legislative approval are separated by years.
"Companies that are going to bid on these proposals are going to put tens of millions of dollars into these bids only to face months or years of delays in the Legislature and risk seeing the projects picked apart," said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian and privatization think tank.
Poole said that as the concept of toll lanes has gained steam across the country, virtually none has required legislative approval of the final project, with the exception of a toll project in Indiana.
In recent years, several major engineering and construction firms have pursued these projects, including Pasadena-based Parsons Corp., San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp., Watsonville-based Granite Construction Inc., Peter Kiewit & Sons of Omaha, Neb. and Fluor Corp, which just moved to Irving, Texas from Aliso Viejo.
But even Poole said that the underlying political support for truck toll lanes along the Long Beach Freeway is so strong that a project would likely survive the legislative process.
As for the revenue stream, there's widespread agreement that truckers would pay the tolls up front, with an expectation that they would then pass those costs on to their customers.
"We're not opposed to this, as long as the tolls can be passed on and as long as truckers are not forced into using these lanes," said Stephanie Williams, spokeswoman for the California Trucking Association. "We think many truckers would use this because it would save them lots of time and in this business, time is money."
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