Prop 1B Might Make Things Worse

Southern California needs toll roads and transportation reform

If California voters give the nod to Proposition 1B, they’ll get $20 billion for transportation. Ironically, Southern California could also get more gridlock. The proposition spreads the dough around enough to ensure widespread political support, but the approach also ensures that no area gets enough resources to take a real bite out of congestion. Yet even if we could stuff Prop 1B with twice as much funding, our transportation woes would still continue. State leaders say our transportation network is starved for funds, but what it’s really hungry for is reform.

If Prop 1B fails state leaders may actually be forced to reform, but if it passes reformist pressure will surely dissipate. That’s too bad, because Southern California is surprisingly well-positioned to beat back congestion.

Consider California’s history as a transportation innovator. Fifteen years ago, a trailblazing but imperfect law called AB680 spawned two public-private toll road projects. The law allowed an unused freeway median on Orange County’s SR91 to be transformed into High-Occupancy Toll or “HOT” lanes. When the facility opened in 1995 it introduced some groundbreaking “firsts.” It was the first privately financed toll road in America in the 20th Century, the first with no tollbooths, and the first facility in the world to use “value pricing” to manage traffic flow. The price of the toll goes up and down with the flow of traffic, and since the HOT lanes run parallel to regular freeway lanes, motorists always have a free-flowing alternative to congestion.

Why not expand on this home-grown innovation?

The good news is that many HOT lanes are nearly built already. The region is home to the nation’s highest concentration of carpool lanes, and these lanes can be converted to HOT lanes rather easily. Add the necessary connectors and motorists could enjoy a network of congestion-free lanes. Imagine driving from Pasadena to Santa Monica or from Burbank to Anaheim, knowing you could leave any time of day and travel at free-flow conditions the whole way.

And, from a tunnel that fills in the 710’s missing link to truck-only toll lanes that separate towering big-rigs from regular traffic, motorists could also expect faster project delivery. San Diego’s South Bay Expressway was made possible by AB680 and the road is set to open next year—at least 13 years sooner than if it had been built the conventional way.

Since AB680 dozens of cities have pursued HOT lanes and 23 states have adopted public-private partnership legislation. Unfortunately, California shifted into reverse. Instead of improving the law, the state repealed AB680 in 2002. While many billions of private dollars bypass California on their way to other destinations, 1B backers tell us that the state with the nation’s lowest credit rating has no choice but to sink deeper into debt.

If California passed a sensible public-private partnership law we would see that even the severity of our problem has an upside. The amount of funding gridlocked Southern California could lure would probably dwarf what other areas have attracted. Recently former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta noted that the private sector regards the region as “the most attractive [road] investment opportunity in America, if not the world.”

Experience would also be on our side. HOT lanes aren’t the “Lexus Lanes” that early detractors feared they’d be; a decade’s-worth of evidence shows that motorists of all income levels use and support the lanes. And over the years other states have ironed out problems that dogged AB680. For example, the SR91 contract included a “non-compete” provision that thwarted other highway projects. The clause infuriated motorists and eventually led the local public transportation agency to buy the facility. But today such non-compete provisions are no longer necessary.

Even public opinion is warming to toll-based reform. Voters would probably pounce on a politician who suggested tolling existing roads, but tolling new capacity is a different story. Recently the Mineta Institute revealed that Californians are actually more supportive of tolling than raising gas taxes or floating bonds.

With an open-minded public, willing investors, and so much else going for it, we really could take a whack at congestion. But if voters hand over their credit card again, we’ll just get more of the same congested thinking that has kept us stuck in congested streets for so long.

Reason Foundation’s Ted Balaker is co-author of the new book, The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, And What We Can Do About It (Rowman & Littlefield). An archive of his work is here. Reason’s transportation research and commentary is here and Reason’s California-specific research and commentary is here.