Commentary

Cutbacks In Public Transit Funds Should Compel Acceptance Of User Fees For Transportation

Budget bust should compel acceptance

Transportation planning agencies across the state are reeling from the funding cutbacks stemming from the state’s unprecedented fiscal crisis. Nearly all the major transportation projects in the Bay Area have been put at risk of years of delay, including the $3.8 billion extension of BART to San Jose. Here in the Southland, Caltrans expects major delays in the much-needed addition of HOV lanes on the gridlocked 405 in West LA, and OCTA has scaled back plans for adding HOV lanes to the Garden Grove Freeway.

And those are just projects that were already in the pipeline. Major new initiatives-the long-delayed missing link on I-710 through (now beneath) South Pasadena, truck lanes for the overburdened Long Beach Freeway, and a new corridor between Riverside and Orange Counties-all begin to look like wishful thinking in today’s fiscal climate.

Yet that doesn’t have to be the outcome, if we follow some lessons from California and other states during the 1990s. Ours was the first state to enact a public/private toll roads law, AB 680 (in 1989). Orange County also pioneered self-help transportation financing by creating the Transportation Corridors Agencies to add billions of dollars in otherwise unaffordable highway capacity. More recently, Florida, Texas, and Virginia have enacted second-generation transportation partnership measures, encompassing the best of both Orange County models. It’s time we took a closer look at the potential of going this route in 21st-century California.

Former Sen. Quentin Kopp made transportation history several years ago with his SB 45, which decentralized 75% of transportation investment decisions to lower levels of government-the MPOs and RTPAs. But what was not decentralized was the ability to impose user fees for transportation. SCAG and MTA, for example, are exploring the idea of a toll tunnel for the I-710 missing link-but they have no authority to authorize such a toll or to issue toll revenue bonds. Likewise for a proposed Riverside-Orange County tunnel or proposed toll-supported truck lanes on selected LA-area freeways. Or for HOT lanes on any number of freeways where the addition of HOV lanes would be extremely expensive (e.g., the 405 in West LA).

The need for devolving state power to levy transportation user fees and to create public-private partnerships was one of the key themes of a recent conference, “Beyond Crisis: The New Generation of Transportation Financing in California,” held March 7 by the new Center for Urban Infrastructure of UC-Irvine. In both plenary sessions and breakout sessions, this theme came up again and again. It was clear to most of the 250 transportation experts that we cannot solve California’s major transportation problems without significant new investment, including some multi-billion-dollar projects. But there is no way that such sums can be made available via the existing transportation planning process.

Several members of the legislature have introduced bills recently to revive 1989’s AB 680, which was terminated by the legislation authorizing OCTA to buy up the 91 Express Lanes project. But simply reviving this pioneering but flawed measure would be inadequate. That law authorized private toll roads, not true public-private partnerships. It required 100% private funding, rather than a mix of public and private capital (as encouraged by federal law and exemplified by more recent measures in other states). It authorized only Caltrans to enter into such agreements, rather than regional transportation agencies. So one approach would be to either adapt, say, the Texas or Virginia public-private transportation acts, or to do a wholesale revision of the old AB 680.

Robert W. Poole Jr. is director of transportation studies and founder of the Reason Foundation.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.

Aviation

Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.