By JOHN MCLAURIN

The collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis has not been lost on those of us in California who rely on a transportation infrastructure of the same vintage, or older, as that unfortunate span in Minnesota. Skimping on long-overdue bridge replacement and repair, and using transportation funds to balance the state budget, is a recipe for disaster.


Within weeks of the tragedy in Minneapolis, officials there worked with great speed to mitigate the loss of a major highway, and in the process secured a large federal grant. Yet the ultimate solution for funding the Minneapolis project is not a grant alone, but one familiar to drivers nationwide and the various components of our freight supply chain: tolling and congestion-management pricing.


It is worth noting that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in announcing his opposition to proposed container tax legislation, recently called for priority action in replacing the bridges that serve the ports. There is no question that these bridges need to be upgraded, and the private sector stands ready to answer the Mayor's call. Indeed, industry has offered to pay for these projects and other infrastructure through tolls clear and direct user fees.


We now renew our call for a Terminal Island Toll Authority, where the users of the bridges would pay tolls for the repair, maintenance and replacement of the Gerald Desmond, Schuyler Heim and Vincent Thomas Bridges. By the Port's own internal study a reasonable toll could gross approximately $2.5 billion over 30 years, more than enough to cover the price of these bridges. It is not unimaginable that a congestion-priced toll would raise even more revenue than projected and further reduce congestion for all drivers on these bridges and the 110 and 710 freeways.


Conventional wisdom is that Southern Californians will never accept tolling. Of course, if you remember the Vincent Thomas Bridge tolls, or if you now commute through Orange County on the San Joaquin Hills or Foothill toll roads, use the Riverside Freeway (91) express lanes, or drive on I -15 through San Diego County, you know that this is not true. Tolls and congestion-management pricing not only reduce congestion and provide additional transportation options, but they helped finance these road projects.


Toll technology

As discovered throughout the country, and as implemented at the new Benicia Bridge in Northern California, toll-paying does not need to result in long lines of idling commuters and trucks. Technology now provides for electronic transponders and an array of other devices to implement "open road tolling" where tolls can be paid at freeway speeds without booths or plazas.


When tolls are varied by time and road conditions, that is called "congestion-management pricing." Promoted by economists for years, experience has proven their predictions true, as congestion-management pricing reduces traffic loads in peak times. Indeed, marine terminal operators at our ports, through PierPass, have moved approximately 40 percent of their cargo to night operations by charging a daytime congestion-management fee.


We agree that bridge safety must remain a priority for all of us. We also agree that the Sacramento container tax should be opposed because its tax formula is arbitrary, illegal and its results unpredictable by measure of how the money is spent. However, while the transportation community broadly opposes using taxes on containers as a misdirected proxy for true user fees, shippers, ocean carriers, marine terminal operators, retailers, railroads, importers and exporters all agree on one thing - tolls are fair, legal and could easily and quickly be imposed to fund these important bridge projects.


The number of studies examining California's infrastructure needs could fill a room. And the transfer of transportation funds for unrelated uses has become an annual budgetary exercise. California does not have enough funds to support all of its public transportation infrastructure needs, despite the recent passage of $19.9 billion in bonds. Nor will the federal government have the ability to provide adequate financing for any of these projects of national significance. This means that we need to use private revenues tolls to help us pay for new trade infrastructure, including our Terminal Island bridges.


John McLaurin is president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a trade association that represents owners and operators of marine terminals and marine vessels.

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