Commentary

The Road Most Traveled

California should let investors roll out toll lanes

“Californians cannot get from place to place on little fairy wings. This is a car-centered state. We need roads.”
– Gov. Schwarzenegger

Someday, Riverside County may follow in the footsteps of Orange County, which evolved from farmland to a bedroom community for Los Angeles during the 1950s and eventually became a job center in its own right by the 1980s. But in the decades until that transformation takes place, the availability of developable land for affordable housing means that Riverside will remain a significant bedroom community for its jobs-rich coastal neighbor.

And, as the governor points out, that means highway capacity must be up to the task of getting hundreds of thousands of commuters back and forth every day. Rail cannot solve this problem. Even if we had the money, rail is so expensive that it can only serve a corridor or two, rather than the many thousands of origins and destinations reachable via the highway system. Buses and vanpools do offer a transit alternative, and one that is far more flexible than what a fixed-rail system can offer. But they, too, depend on adequate highways.

But where, how, and at what cost can we provide additional highway capacity? Highway 91 is the main commuter artery today. Unfortunately, it’s located in the Santa Ana Canyon, which makes adding more than a lane or two problematical.

Double-decking Highway 91 is a possibility, though at enormous cost. Recent estimates put double-decking in the vicinity of $25 million to $30 million per lane-mile – about three times as much as adding lanes on the surface. Thus, a complete 12-lane double-decker extending the 18 miles from Interstate 15 to SR 55 would cost about $6.5 billion. Doing eight lanes would cost $4.3 billion.

Another alternative would be to build a new route parallel to the 91 but somewhat further south, since an increasing fraction of commuters work in fast-growing south Orange County.

One route that’s been suggested is a straight shot from I-15 at Cajalco to the junction of the Foothill Toll Road and SR 133 in Orange County. Because that route traverses the mountainous terrain of the Cleveland National Forest, it would be less costly and have less environmental impact to build it as a tunnel.

And while some estimates put such a 13-mile tunnel in excess of $3 billion, recent work at Reason Foundation suggests it could be built for less than $2 billion. That would be for an eight-lane tunnel, consisting of twin tubes: one for six lanes of cars and the other for two lanes of trucks. The design is adapted from an innovative $2 billion tunnel project under construction near Paris.

Either $4.3 billion or $2 billion is still a real chunk of money, in a state that currently has no money for even ordinary highway projects, let alone mega-projects of this sort. Are we therefore doomed to perpetual gridlock? Not if Riverside commuters are prepared to pay tolls for a better commuting alternative.

Investors worldwide look at the billions of dollars Californians waste every year stuck in traffic and see not just a problem but an opportunity.

They are willing to put up billions of dollars, up front, to build major congestion-relief projects in exchange for the rights to charge tolls. A Spanish tollway company recently committed $7.2 billion to build and operate a 316-mile toll road in central Texas. Other billion-dollar-plus projects are under way or in the bidding stages in Virginia and other parts of Texas.

To pay for a $2 billion tunnel, tolls would probably have to be similar to those now charged on the 91 express lanes. And while those toll levels are too high for many people to pay on an everyday basis, “value-priced” tolls do offer the huge advantage of allowing the traffic to flow smoothly at 65 mph, even at the busiest rush hour.

Express buses, vanpools and carpools would save a huge amount of time using such a corridor. Value-priced tollways generally offer reduced rates to such high-occupancy vehicles, making them affordable to just about everyone.

California currently has only one such project under construction: a $750 million new toll road (SR 125 South) in San Diego. It was built under a now-repealed pilot program. States like Texas and Virginia have laws that enable such projects. Unless or until California does likewise, it will be impossible to build mega-projects like a new route between Riverside and Orange counties.

So unless Californians develop little fairy wings, we need to think seriously about toll projects legislation.

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.