The Case for the Toll Road

Foothill South toll road a vital missing link in Southern California

Southern California is the congestion capital of the U.S.A. According to the latest national study by the Texas Transportation Institute, commuters in Los Angeles/Orange County spent an average of 93 hours per year stuck in traffic; in San Diego, it’s 52 hours a year. The cost of just the wasted time and wasted fuel in these two urban regions is more than $12 billion a year. And if you think that’s bad, just wait till 2030, when both metro areas will have 40 percent more people. Despite spending a combined $250 billion on transportation between 2005 and 2030 in both regions, congestion is projected to get even worse.

And if you think today’s congestion cost of $12 billion a year is awful, that’s only the direct cost. The chief economist at the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that the full cost to regional economies is more than twice the cost of wasted time and fuel. Congestion reduces the productivity of economies by messing up just-in-time delivery systems, reducing the number of jobs tradespeople can get to each day, and making many desirable jobs off-limits to well-qualified people —- they are simply too far away, not in commuting distance but in commuting time. Growing congestion makes Southern California less and less competitive as a place to live, work and do business.

Because reducing congestion would be hugely beneficial, we need to make every feasible investment in making our transportation system work better. That’s why I support the Foothill South toll road, to fill in a vital missing link in Southern California’s transportation system. Foothill South will deliver very real congestion relief. By 2025, if it is not built, it will take a full hour on Interstate 5 to get from the county line to Oso Parkway in Mission Viejo. But with Foothill South taking part of the traffic load, that trip would take 25 minutes on I-5 or just 16 minutes on the toll road. And those time savings on the toll road would be sustainable, long-term, if the toll road uses peak/off-peak pricing, as most new toll roads do today.

But there’s more to the case for Foothill South than just congestion relief. It also provides an alternative route to I-5 in case of natural or human-caused disasters —- earthquakes, brush fires, terrorist attacks. Any region with just a single north-south artery is vulnerable to what systems engineers call a single-point failure. A major virtue of the Internet is the ability of data packets to route around trouble spots; it’s the same thing with a highway network.

Critics sometimes deride new highways as potential boondoggles, like the proposed bridge to nowhere in Alaska. But a toll road is different. Taxpayers’ money is not at risk. A toll road like Foothill South will get financed only if there is a solid case that the traffic demand is there, generating enough toll revenues to pay the capital and operating costs, paying back those who take the risk of purchasing the project’s revenue bonds. This market test is very effective at weeding out boondoggles that don’t meet a real transportation need.

Others will argue that instead of building another highway, we should use tax money to build a rail transit line. But we already have coastal rail service between San Diego and Orange counties. It meets the modest demand that exists but cannot meet the multitude of door-to-door trip needs of individuals and businesses in low-density North San Diego County and southern Orange County. Transportation plans of both the San Diego and Southern California associations of governments, or SANDAG and SCAG, respectively, allocate the majority of all transportation spending between now and 2030 to mass transit. Yet by 2030, neither expects transit’s share of commuter trips to be any higher than 10 percent. In other words, 90 percent of us will still need the highways to get where we need to go. And so will trucks.

As Southern California grows, it becomes harder and harder to figure out how to squeeze in adequate highway capacity, yet our settlement patterns, our highly effective logistics system, and our highly decentralized job locations all require access by motor vehicle. We can’t stick our heads in the sand, assuming that if we don’t build the roads, “they” won’t come. “They” are already here, and because we haven’t kept road-building in pace, they are now stuck in traffic congestion. So we must do the best we can to find least-bad solutions to locating needed new highways.

Foothill South has been through that agonizing process. The selected route strikes me as clearly the least-bad option. Nobody would prefer to put a portion of a new highway through a state park (even a portion used by only 5 percent of its users). But this alternative saved as many as 800 homes and 300 businesses from being targeted for condemnation under perfectly legal state powers of eminent domain for public use. I think that’s a reasonable trade-off.

San Diego and Orange County are in competition with Sun Belt metro areas like Austin, Dallas and Atlanta as places to live, work and do business. Public officials in those regions have recently set aggressive goals that by 2030 their levels of congestion will be significantly lower —- not higher —- than today. They are adding high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and toll roads to reduce congestion and increase mobility. Southern California should be doing likewise.

Robert W. Poole, Jr. is director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation, where he has advised the last four presidential administrations. He served on Gov. Pete Wilson’s Commission on Transportation Investment and has advised the U.S. Department of Transportation and half a dozen state DOTs on transportation policy issues. He received two engineering degrees from MIT. An archive of his work is here. Reason’s transportation research is here.