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.