Ending CA Gridlock Requires Compromise

Pols should quit raiding road funds; allow toll lanes

Imagine all of the residents of Florida piling into moving vans and relocating to California. Over the next 25 years, California’s population is expected to increase by 16 million — roughly Florida’s population in 2000.

In 2002, the average Los Angeles motorist wasted 93 hours sitting in congestion, up from 47 hours in 1982, according to the Texas Transportation Institute. And now the Daily News reports new census-data estimates that Los Angeles residents spend 240 hours a year – or 10 full days – commuting.

If we think we sit in traffic now, just wait until all of Florida joins us.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative Democrats have recently offered answers to the problem. Schwarzenegger is focused on the state’s long-term needs, building new highways and adding new capacity through public-private partnerships and tolls. But the governor also continues to raid much-needed Proposition 42 transportation funds.

Passed in 2002, Proposition 42 was supposed to ensure that the state’s portion of gasoline sales taxes actually goes to transportation projects. Instead, the money continues to plug other holes in the budget. Many Democrats in the Legislature argue that if they can just fix Proposition 42, everything will be OK.

They should fix it, but Proposition 42 shouldn’t be mistaken for a long-term transportation solution. Yes, billons of dollars have foolishly been siphoned away from transportation. The money Proposition 42 generates might rebuild congested interchanges, but it will not add the major new capacity California needs to cope with future growth.

With 16 million people on the way, the reality is that new toll roads are infinitely better than no new roads at all. Some key Democrats have seen the big picture and realize that the state simply cannot afford to build the new highways needed in coming years. Working with Schwarzenegger, Democratic Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, introduced a bill that would allow public-private partnerships to build new roads, with the financing recouped through tolls.

As a result, the standard, tired argument against tolls – that they’re “Lexus lanes,” exclusively for rich drivers – is re-emerging. The data from the San Diego and Orange County high-occupancy toll lanes, however, show that most drivers are ordinary, middle-income people who use the toll lanes occasionally, when they really need to get somewhere on time and it’s worth it to them to pay the toll. As for those few drivers who use the lanes every day, they are paying a significant amount of the cost of valuable public infrastructure that everyone benefits from and that would otherwise not get built.

High-occupancy toll lanes, with variable tolls that guarantee the lane is always moving at the speed limit, offer several benefits: Every driver has “congestion insurance,” the peace of mind of knowing that when you absolutely, positively have to get somewhere on time – to catch a flight, to pick up your child at day care, etc. – you can pay to get into an uncongested lane. Emergency vehicles always have a way to get through traffic quickly, and transit agencies have an uncongested system for regionwide express bus service far superior to today’s mix of congested freeway lanes and car-pool lanes.

Consider the possibilities: A lane that always moves at 65 miles per hour on U.S. 101 from Woodland Hills to downtown Los Angeles, or a free-flowing lane on Interstate 405 from Van Nuys to Los Angeles International Airport, or a toll tunnel to complete the missing link on Interstate 710 beneath South Pasadena.

If ever an opportunity for a compromise between Schwarzenegger and the Legislature existed, this is it. Schwarzenegger should work with Democrats to protect Proposition 42 now. Instead of continuing to loot transportation funds, the governor could fill that budget gap with savings from the policy recommendations of the California Performance Review. Even the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which thought the plan’s cost-savings were overstated, believed that the recommendations could save the state $10 billion to $15 billion.

With the transportation funds protected, Democrats should get behind Canciamilla’s bill and Schwarzenegger’s plan by acknowledging that the state simply cannot afford to add the new highways that will be needed in the coming decades – unless it turns to the private sector for financing. World-class cities like Paris and Sydney are already using this approach to great success.

By compromising, both sides could declare victory, and California would actually have a shot at building a transportation system that deals with both the short- and long-term funding challenges.

George Passantino is director of government affairs at Reason Foundation. He served as a director on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California Performance Review.