Commentary: Setting the record straight on toll lanes

Much has been written recently about the Caltrans proposal to require tolls on the new lane improvements to the 405 Freeway, and not all of it has been accurate, so I want to set the record straight.

I oppose Caltrans' efforts to dictate toll policy to local agencies. I oppose the conversion of existing lanes to toll lanes. I support the non-toll alternative adopted by the Orange County Transporation Authority.

In fact, I opposed the very first effort by our same governor, Jerry Brown, to convert a free lane to a high-occupancy vehicle lane on the Santa Monica Freeway in the 1970s, when my current Assembly opponent, Huntington Beach Mayor Matt Harper, was still learning to walk.

For more than 24 years, I have worked for many of the major transportation agencies throughout the U.S. developing and funding long-range transportation plans. I understand better than most that voters deserve the projects they vote for when they approve local sales taxes, and policymakers have an obligation to deliver what the voters approved within the funding ability of the local tax. For Caltrans to try to dictate to Orange County how it spends Measure M money is an affront to the voters.

This is not the first time Caltrans, under this governor, has tried to meddle in local transportation policy. Recently it held up approval of a much-needed bond refunding for the Foothill/Eastern toll road to effectively block its extension. This has got to stop. We need legislators experienced in transportation finance who will protect locally approved sales tax funding plans from state meddling.

I support local control across the board, for transportation finance and regulation of group homes, massage parlors and fire rings. These should be local decisions. My opponent, Harper, flip-flops on this issue, saying he supports local control of transportation, but wants to give the state complete power over local decisions like fire rings. On his watch, Huntington Beach has seen a 600% increase in massage parlors, some of them fronts for prostitution, because of state preemption of local regulation.

Toll roads can be a user fee-based means to fund new capacity improvements when no other funding is available. But these should be local decisions by local decision makers, accountable to the voters.

On another issue, Harper has said I support a mileage-based user fee. What he failed to say is that my support of this concept is fully dependent on the repeal of our highest-in-the-nation gasoline tax and revenue neutrality. Right now, drivers of Teslas, Nissan Leafs and other electric cars do not pay anything to maintain our roads.

In fact, because of better gas mileage across the board, the gas tax has been losing purchasing power for many years, and we are not keeping pace with our highway-maintenance needs. The idea that highway construction and maintenance should be paid for through user fees is well-established. What is broken is the fact that not all users pay, and some politically correct car buyers are getting a free ride at the expense of working families. That's OK with Harper; it's not with me.

Of course, repealing the cap-and-trade, 14-cent-per-gallon hidden tax on gas, allowing Caltrans to contract with private engineering companies (like OCTA does), streamlining the California Environmental Quality Act process and supporting new approaches, such as Uber — a ride service app — would reduce the cost of transportation for all of us and create thousands of new jobs in the process. That is what real leadership in Sacramento can accomplish.

Newport Beach City Councilman KEITH CURRY is a candidate for the 74th Assembly District.

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