Legislature May Be Set to Give Green Light to Toll Roads in County
Faced with a shortage of funds to relieve Orange County’s freeway gridlock, the Legislature may be poised to buck a California tradition and grant the county permission to build as many as three toll roads to bypass its most congested traffic corridors.
Though an Assembly-passed measure authorizing all counties to build toll roads appears headed for trouble in the Senate, both houses of the Legislature have already approved different bills allowing Orange County to build the roads as an experiment.
This is the closest the Legislature has ever come to sending the governor a bill that would supplement California’s traditional freeway system with local turnpikes similar to those common in the East. And with Gov. George Deukmejian indicating that he may support the idea, Orange County officials say the state’s first public toll roads could be carrying Southland traffic by the early 1990s.
That prospect, even if limited to Orange County, upsets those who believe that freeways are a California birthright.
“Toll roads are a symbol of Eastern decadence,” Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) said in an interview. “This is the renaissance state, where we don’t make people stop their car and pay money to use the road. It’s a form of highway robbery.”
Assemblyman Rusty Areias (D-Los Banos), another fervent opponent, calls toll roads a “U-turn to yesterday.” Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D-Union City) insists that the notion is “un-Californian.”
David Scharlach, a Sacramento lobbyist for the Automobile Club of Southern California, suggests that the state’s tax-financed freeway system will deteriorate if toll roads are built as an alternative.
“To set up toll roads sets up two systems of highways, one for those who can afford to pay the tolls and one for those who can’t,” Scharlach said. “Those who can afford a new, sleek highway system will pay the toll and use it. Those who can’t will be relegated to what we believe will be a second-class road system.”
But so far this year, supporters of toll roads have outnumbered opponents in the Legislature. The Assembly has approved two bills, one allowing any California county to build toll roads and the other granting that power only to Orange County. The Senate, which several times in recent years has rejected toll road proposals, approved a measure June 11 allowing two agencies formed by a group of Orange County cities and the county government to build toll roads.
Before reaching the governor’s desk, each of those bills will have to survive a vote in the house of the Legislature where it has not yet been taken up.
Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), author of the measure passed by the Senate, said he doubts the upper house will approve the bill by Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Huntington Beach) to allow toll roads statewide. Frizzelle’s bill includes a highly controversial provision allowing private corporations to build and operate the roads. Besides, Seymour pointed out, too many senators oppose toll roads in their districts.
Sen. Wadie Deddeh (D-Chula Vista), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, agreed that neither his committee nor the full Senate is likely to support the widespread use of toll roads. But Deddeh said he supports, “with a great deal of reluctance,” experimenting with toll roads in Orange County.
“We are in a desperate situation,” Deddeh said of the state’s transportation system. “If we do not look at every possibility, every avenue, every innovation, we are going to be in serious trouble.”
Seymour said Orange County has no choice but to turn to toll roads. With the lion’s share of state funds for the county’s projects going to rebuilding and widening the Santa Ana Freeway, little money is left for new highways needed to relieve existing congestion and accommodate expected new development, he said.
“This is really an ace-in-the-hole concept,” Seymour said. “This is the card you play when you’ve played every other card in your hand.”
Stan Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission, said toll roads, even if “un-Californian,” may be “truly Orange Countian.”
“This fits with the idea that the user pays--if you want a better service and you’re willing to pay for it, the opportunity to buy it may be there,” Oftelie said. “It may fit in with Orange County’s entrepreneurial attitude.”
Deukmejian has yet to take an official position on any of the toll road bills. But the Republican governor hinted recently that he might go along with the concept if the new roads are built parallel to existing freeways.
“We’d have to wait and see what happens to this proposal in the Legislature and what its final form is before making a final decision,” Deukmejian said in an interview June 8 with several Capitol reporters. “If it does leave it up to the motorist and they can make the choice, freely and voluntarily, and if they want to pay to ride on a particular stretch of highway, I don’t think that would bother me too much.”
While the bills by Frizzelle and Seymour require that toll roads be parallel to free roads, the term “parallel” is not defined in the legislation. The three routes envisioned by Orange County planners do not run directly alongside existing freeways.
One of the routes--which the county refers to as the Foothill Transportation Corridor--is roughly parallel but several miles east of the Santa Ana Freeway, running from Orange south to the San Diego County line. Another, the Eastern Corridor, connects the Riverside Freeway in eastern Orange County to the Santa Ana Freeway in Irvine, cutting through a largely undeveloped area. The third, the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor, runs through the coastal foothills, creating a short-cut alternative to the San Diego Freeway between Costa Mesa and San Juan Capistrano.
Under current law, only the state Department of Transportation can build toll roads or bridges. There are 10 toll bridges in California.
But when many eastern states began in the 1930s to build extensive networks of toll roads, California chose to finance its freeway system through the state gasoline tax. The state flirted briefly with the idea of toll roads in 1951 and 1952--including a proposal for a tollway between San Francisco and Los Angeles--but the idea was never accepted. The result has been a system of free highways widely regarded as the best in the nation, if not the world.
Today, the gasoline tax stands at 9 cents a gallon, enough to provide about $1.1 billion a year for highway projects statewide. Several rapidly growing California counties, however, say their highway needs are outstripping their share of the gas tax revenue, which is distributed by the California Transportation Commission. Santa Clara, Alameda and Fresno county voters have passed ballot measures increasing the sales tax to pay for roads in those counties.
Rejected Tax Increase
Orange County voters overwhelmingly rejected such a tax increase in 1984, prompting transportation officials there to look elsewhere for the estimated $1 billion it will cost to build highways around each of the county’s three most congested traffic corridors. Three years ago, the Legislature gave the county the power to collect special fees on building permits--as much as $1,200 a home--to help finance the roads.
Earlier this year, President Reagan signed legislation that lifted a longstanding prohibition on collecting tolls on highways financed in part by federal funds. Orange County and six other areas were selected to participate in a pilot project using federal funds to cover as much as 35% of toll road construction costs.
John Meyer, executive director of the Transportation Corridor Agencies, said the federal involvement and the developer fee revenue means that on at least one of the proposed roads, tolls will be needed to finance only 17% of the construction costs.
Depending on how high the toll is--and no level has yet been set--the bonds sold to finance the roads could be repaid in 5 to 10 years, after which the tolls would be removed and the roads converted into regular state highways, Meyer said.
“That would give us a very short-lived and reasonable toll,” Meyer said.
Seymour compares the toll roads proposed for Orange County to the toll bridges across San Francisco Bay.
“A toll bridge is a transportation system that moves you from point A to point B,” Seymour said. “My bill is better, in that at least we’re running parallel to existing highways and freeways. At least people have an alternative.
“I was in San Francisco a few weekends ago, and there are three ways into that city, on two of which you will pay a toll or swim. Take your choice.”