Toll Roads Look Like Way to Go

Mark Baldassare is a UC Irvine sociology professor and Cheryl Katz is a journalist specializing in demographics. They conduct opinion surveys including the UCI Orange County Annual Survey.

With the recent Assembly approval of a bill allowing toll roads, the phantom of a toll booth on Orange County roads is becoming more tangible.

But in Orange County, where residents repeatedly reject attempts to make them pay for their travel, could the "tollway" ever be as popular as the "freeway?"

The answer, it seems, is yes.

This finding, from a poll we conducted at the request of the Santa Margarita Co., came as quite a surprise to us. In the five years we have been exploring the Orange County psyche through opinion polls of more than 20,000 residents, each time transportation was mentioned, we met with the same set of answers. Traffic: "It's terrible. It's the county's No. 1 problem." Freeway satisfaction: "No way. Existing freeways need lanes added, plus new freeways should be built."

Who should pay for transportation improvements: "Not me!: Ask the developers, or the state. Or use our local money more wisely to come up with the funds." Time and again, we encountered disgust with the current road system and strident calls for improvements. But each time residents were asked if they would pay for these improvements, the answer was a resounding "No."

In the March survey of 500 South County residents, we decided to cover some new ground. But first, we backtracked over old territory, and once again found that residents of this area have traffic woes foremost on their minds. Traffic was judged far and away the worst community problem, drawing more than twice as many mentions as any other topic. These residents also could not have expressed much more disgust with the current freeway system: Only 6% said they were satisfied, and more than half wanted new freeways. And we found strong support for the planned Foothills Freeway and the San Joaquin Hills Corridor.

Once again, when asked who should pay for the roads, the residents responded, "Not me." Three in four wanted developers to foot the bill, while a third or less favored a sales tax, business tax or toll roads.

But then we asked a question we had not asked before: Would the residents pay $1 each way on a toll road if it cut their travel time in half. Suddenly, the opposition to toll roads turned to a majority who said, "Yes." When the toll was lowered to 50 cents, nearly two in three said they would pay. And nearly three in four said they would drop 25 cents at a toll booth for a quicker one-way trip.

Why such a change of heart for tightfisted Orange County? Certainly not the low cost--$1 or less for a one-way toll looks like an exorbitant amount compared to the 1-cent sales tax so soundly rejected in Proposition A. And poll after poll has shown most residents unwilling to pay any of their own money for transportation projects.

No, the magic words that loosened those South County residents' grip on their pocketbooks were "if your travel time was cut in half." Unless reminded, residents do not equate toll roads with faster travel. In fact, they have quit believing that anything can ease the snarl on Orange County roads.

Toll roads are not the panacea for all of Orange County's traffic ills. They are accepted because they offer residents hope--something that previous proposals have failed to do. For years, we have heard the same grim message that Southern California traffic can only get worse. Local leaders also tell us that the current slate of freeway improvement projects will stave off total gridlock but that nothing will shorten tomorrow's Orange County commute.

Little wonder that residents reject so-called traffic improvement projects while the county's roadways become ever more torturous. An already skeptical public, notoriously opposed to taxation, is being asked to pay for projects that won't really solve their most vexing problem.

And this lack of resolution is beginning to take its toll on the Orange County psyche. In the past year, our polls have been turning up obvious signs of hopelessness--most notably, the 1986 Orange County Annual Survey's finding that most residents think that the county will be a worse place to live in the future.

One sure way to restore the county's confidence is to come up with a blueprint for improving today's traffic and keeping it moving in the future. We know there are no quick and easy fixes. Solutions will require residents and businesses to make sacrifices. Lots of money will have to be spent. And some die-hard habits will have to change. We need to vigorously attack the traffic monster, not simply throw it a few bones in hope of postponing its onslaught.

So far, toll roads are the only proposal to have offered promise of tangible results. And if this is the best that our leaders can come up with, toll roads could become the victims of their own success, congested with automobiles avoiding the gridlocked freeways. So without many more solutions worked out in a comprehensive planning equation, toll roads themselves could face the phantom of gridlock.

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